Do Arctic explorers really burn penguins to keep warm?

It may surprise you to know this – but Penguins are some of the most calorie dense foods out there, so it makes sense as to why they would be used as a fuel source. Contained within 100 grams of Penguin is roughly 545kJ/130 kcal. They are incredibly common too – you are able to purchase them at any superstore across the UK. I have many fond memories of growing up and opening my school lunch-box to see my mother had managed to stuff in another Penguin as treat.

Oh. I understand why you are a little confused.

Penguin
Penguin
Penguins
Penguins

The short answer is no. Arctic explorers do not burn penguins in order to keep warm. From the outside looking in, it seems like the Arctic is a frozen tundra with very little capable of surviving the harsh climate. The one thing that appears to be in abundance is the vast colonies of fluffy, slow-moving, and incredibly flammable flightless birds. This myth admittedly does make a little sense as to why they would be exploited as fuel source…

Why it is borderline impossible to set fire to a penguin:

There are several teensy-weensy holes in this myth. Which we will now expand upon:

• Penguins exclusively live in the southern hemisphere, below the equator. Which is about as far away as it gets from the Arctic.
• It is morally questionable (at best) to burn animals for fuel, and environmentalists would be up in arms.
• Penguins gather in massive colonies, often well over a million strong. They would overwhelm any potential arsonists with sheer numbers. Source – NYTimes
• Due to the behavioural adaptations and density of colonies, any fire would quickly spread from penguin to penguin and exhaust the fuel source rapidly.
• Have you ever tried to start a campfire on a family holiday? It’s incredibly difficult. Now, imagine attempting the same thing in the Arctic while it is -34°C and 50mph winds are gusting…

So, what do Arctic communities use as an energy source?

Following that quick myth-bust we return to the problem at hand. The Arctic being a uniquely desolate location with little infrastructure. At a first glance it seems like there are truly no resources to exploit for energy. However, gone are the days we solely rely on fossil fuels for all of our energy needs. Due to the consistent winds blowing in the arctic, it makes it a prime candidate for wind-renewable energy.

In Arctic communities the main source of fuel is still mostly petrol or diesel generators, especially for expeditions or incredibly rural communities. It is incredibly common to at least have a generator as a back-up source of heat.

There is a slow transition towards utilising more renewable wind-power however. New technology and improvements across the board means that harnessing renewable energy is becoming far easier, even in some of the most inhospitable locations on planet earth.

Want some real-world examples?

Nunavut tourist lodge which is located deep into the North of Canada and situated on Ennadai Lake has recently transitioned into an eco-haven to watch Caribou migrate. This follows sizeable investment into an isolated wind and solar heating system that means the lodge can now remain open from Spring to Autumn. The owner of the lodge, Aziz Kheraj has stated that the facility is now 90% green, and that back-up generator won’t be used for over two weeks at a
time if the weather is favourable.

The previous example shows how accessible renewable energy is becoming for small-businesses in the Arctic Circle, but the following example shows that large businesses are facing positive developments too.

A nickel mining complex in the Nunavik region of Northern Canada has recently finished a multi award winning hybrid energy production unit for use on their site – Raglan mine. The project combines a hybrid wind turbine with long and short-term energy storage capabilities into their existing diesel infrastructure. This features a new innovative pile-mounted wind turbine foundation that has been designed to combat permafrost. This has helped the mine to reduce their diesel usage by 2.1 million litres per year, 4 awards for the project, and a follow-up order of another unit.

A quote that does really well to accurately sum up the current state of wind power generation in arctic communities is this,

“In Northern Europe, wind power operates very reliably in even colder temperatures, including the upper Arctic regions of Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
As long as wind turbines are properly maintained and serviced, they can operate reliably in temperatures well below zero. Humans, to carry out servicing and maintenance and operation, are the most important factor, not the weather.”
– Benjamin Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Sussex

A moment to collect our thoughts

If you have made it this far, then congratulations! This article may seem like the ramblings of a madman – but this is the exact point where we will start putting the pieces together into an article that makes sense. Hopefully.

What do all of the topics we have covered so far in common? Yep, that’s right – Texas.

It may not seem immediately obvious, but we have now equipped ourselves with the tools necessary to really tackle the misinformation surrounding the most recent Texas weather emergency, and subsequent power outages.

So, what happened in Texas?

This is another highly politicised event that is being pushed across many news publications across America. Some believe that the freezing of these turbines is a myth, and draw comparisons with Arctic turbines operating consistently in much lower temperatures. Others believe that this was just doomed to happen when using renewable sources for energy, and renewable energy is to blame.

As always – the truth is in the middle somewhere.

The state of Texas is not known for its cold weather – but in February they experienced some of the coldest temperatures recorded in over thirty years. The US National Weather Service described the event as an “Arctic Outbreak,” as the snow storm moved south from the US-Canada border. Not many saw this extreme weather coming and less still predicted the effects on state infrastructure.

Map of USA during Arctic Outbreak
Map of USA during Arctic Outbreak

Parts of Texas dropped to temperatures as low as -18C at the peak of the storm. This may not seem too extreme to those of us who are used to colder climates, but when considering that the usual temperature for the city of Dallas is usually sitting around 15C at this time of year, the true scale of this event becomes clear.

Texas was soon after plunged into crisis – with power outages, water shortages, food shortages, and incredibly dangerous weather conditions. The governor for Texas, Greg Abbott, initially blamed the power outages on frozen wind turbines and solar panels. But is this true?

Why did what happened in Texas, happen?

Metaphorically speaking, this storm had been brewing for a while. Texas has been passing legislation and completing work to slowly isolate its own state power grid from the two major national grids. This was in an effort to avoid any federal oversight over power supply, and to deregulate their energy sector to benefit private businesses. This protectionist policy making makes it incredibly difficult to import energy from other states.

Ten years previous to this event, U.S federal regulators investigated the Texas energy sector and released their findings in a detailed report. If you like to read these kinds of things, then you can access it online for free here:

Outages and Curtailments During the Southwest Cold Weather Event of February 1-5, 2011

Within this report is an incredibly detailed account of how and why Texan power plants would inevitably fail in response to cold conditions. This report was completed following a similar cold-snap in 2011, where rolling blackouts occurred across more than 75% of the state. Recommendations were made by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation following this previous winter storm to upgrade the energy infrastructure within Texas to more modern winterized standards. These recommendations were ignored by the state governance, deeming the upgrades too costly and ultimately not worth the expenditure.

For a bit of perspective, some are estimating the total state losses to be nearing $90 billion from the most recent deep-freeze.

The wind-turbines and solar panels froze – so the fault must lie with renewables, right?

No – not at all. As we have already covered in this article, wind-turbines run consistently in far worse conditions. Yes, they froze. Yes, they stopped working. But the fault must lie at the feet of the state governance who ignored any and all calls to winterize their equipment, even in the face of overpowering evidence.

But it was not just renewable-sourced energy that ground to a halt.

All sources of power clearly took a massive hit. The Texas power grid actually lost about five times as much power from natural gas as they lost from wind production. The weather was so severe that natural gas production halted and the transport pipelines froze. Following power plants going offline, it was soon discovered that they were not prepared to resume production in the below-freezing conditions. It is somewhat ironic that just as energy production floundered across the state, demand skyrocketed into the stratosphere – reaching the same levels as the hottest days in summer.