LEGO Gets in on the Industrial-Scale Renewable Energy Sham with the LEGO Vestas Wind Turbine
And it all turns out to be little more than a load of shit
Stupid Energy Ideas, Issue #1:
Alongside the continuing adventures of Mr. Shit Face and The Dr. Pooper Papers it's about time that a new series be launched here on FF2F, a series that shall henceforth be known as the Stupid Energy Ideas series. Although the existence of stupid energy ideas is certainly not exclusive to our modern industrial age, the rapid proliferation of them over the past century – and especially the past few decades, and even more especially the past few years – provide ample fodder for insights into the kind of lengths that those desperate to maintain our way of life and thinking will go in order to ward off having to consider those thoughts-that-must-not-be-thought-about.
Without any further ado, my experience with and exposure to all sorts of stupid energy ideas actually stretches back as far as my preteen years, and you can be rest assured that several of those kooky energy ideas that the impressionable mind of a pre-adolescent was exposed to will most certainly make it into this series at one point or another. With that said, to mark the beginning of this Stupid Energy Ideas series I think it'd be rather fitting – and timely – to recount the first stupid energy idea I was ever involved with, one that was no less than a working hydroelectric power station built out of LEGO.
If you're good with these things then you may have picked up that my last name is Danish, Danish (not Dutch!) being the language used in Denmark – the country where LEGO originated. As the story goes, LEGO (derived from the Danish leg godt, which means "play well") originated in the workshop of the carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen. Christiansen began making wooden toys in 1932, LEGO expanded to plastic toys in 1947, then followed that up with the appearance (and patenting) of the basic LEGO brick we're all familiar with in 1958. Fast forward to today and LEGO has dethroned Ferrari to become the most powerful brand in the world.
Having a Danish father, this meant that not only did I begin playing with his handed-down wooden LEGO blocks as a toddler, but that my brother and I had family members in Denmark with access to all sorts of interesting LEGO sets not available in North America (partially in thanks to an aunt on the inside that worked at LEGO itself in Billund, about 30km from where my father and his two sisters grew up).
One of the most notable LEGO sets I (and my brother) had was an imported-from-Denmark 240V electric train set, a set that not only had an engine and cabooses that would advance and retreat along electrified tracks (via the conductor's lever designed for little children's hands), but which also had electrified interchanges for the train to change tracks, electrified crossing bars that would go up and down at vehicular crossings to allow for the passage of trains and cars, as well as little electrified lamp pieces that would light up the tracks and/or streets. It was these electric lamp pieces that would come in handy a few years after I first got that LEGO train set, that being for my first (preteen) hands-on foray into the world of alternative energy.
As a ten- or eleven-year-old it was that time of year again for grade school students to break out the Bristol board and put together their annual science project, a several-week activity in which students in grades four through eight would, by their own volition, come up with a little investigative project to present to fellow students and then to put on display in the gymnasium for the whole school to see during science fair week. These projects ranged from investigations into how magnets work to the workings of different kinds of cloud systems, researched and assembled by each individual student with perhaps some – strictly limited – parental assistance.
For the life of me I can't remember what four of my five science projects were, although one of these projects, done in grade five or six, is as vivid in my memory as that piece of ice I cracked my head open on in grade one and that desk I cracked my head open on – on the same spot – a year later in grade two. As mentioned earlier, what I put together – out of LEGO – was no less that a working hydroelectric power station.
Or at least that was the idea.
Because for starters, the idea to build a hydroelectric power station out of LEGO wasn't mine but my father's (possibly inspired by the nearby Niagara Falls hydroelectric power station), and although I did construct most of the LEGO portions of the apparatus myself, the wiring up of the whole shebang and integration of the necessary resistors (or whatever it be) to make it all light up was done by my father, not me. (Yes, at 9-years-of-age I was in fact sent to a different school for "gifted children", so although I'm definitely rather smart I'm certainly knot that smart.)
Anyway, if that wasn't bad enough for a 10- or 11-year old child already worried about how obvious it would be that it wasn't his science project but rather his father's (who just so happened to be an electrical engineer), another problem was the fact that the whole thing made a mess when water was poured over the LEGO turbine blades (somewhat rectified with translucent plastic walls affixed to the sides and back). But even worse was the fact that the little electric LEGO lamp hooked up to the contraption barely even gave off a smidgen of light when the turbine blades were spun. (I wish I had photos of the thing but oddly enough I don't think any were ever taken.)
Its failure to work was a huge relief to me seeing how the science project was obviously not of my doing, and I was all too eager to scrap the whole thing and put together... I don't know... a volcano made out of baking soda and vinegar dyed with red food colouring. However, if you think "my" LEGO hydroelectric power station got scrapped then you've obviously never met a tenacious engineer before. Because if there's one modus operandi common to the majority of engineers out there, it's this: engineers can fix anything!
So while I was ready to tear the whole thing down like the Tower of Babel it was my father was scheming up another idea, this time directing me to build a little secret compartment adjacent to the power station.
"A secret compartment?" you perchance ask. "To hide your shame of constructing a failed hydroelectric power station out of LEGO?"
Yeah, fat chance of that. Because far from having given up, what my father had wired up and then had me hide inside the secret compartment was nothing less than a 9V battery. If you haven't put two and two together yet, what happened with the new setup was that when water was poured over the LEGO turbine blades the battery's power would be tapped into, meaning that it was by no means the rotating turbine blades that lit up the LEGO lamp but rather the 9V battery itself. My response?
Ah yes, I was most certainly a naïve little boy (albeit one with what you might call budding signs of an amateur systems analyst). Because as I was replied to by my (late) father (who if you haven't guessed by now was a pathological liar, an outright fraud, and if my recent suspicions are correct a certifiable [covert] narcissist), and as was the greatest lesson he repeatedly tried to instill and impart upon his impressionable young son over the years: "No one will ever know!"
Sure, no one will ever know... until thirty or so years later when that young son grows up and starts up something called a "blog".
Anyway, while "my" hydroelectric power station didn't take first prize nor move onto the regionals (not only was it obviously not my project, but it splashed water on you if you were standing too close in front of it while in action), thirty years later we now see that LEGO itself has finally caught up with "my" sham of a science project and released its very own renewable energy set: the LEGO Vestas Wind Turbine.
Although the shiny, new LEGO Creator is vastly superior to my erstwhile LEGO Urinator since it doesn't make you look like you just peed your pants, what is perhaps its greatest similarity to my contraption is that it too uses batteries for its operation to somewhat give off the impression that it's outputting energy (more on that in a moment). However, whereas my version required a modicum of external energy (somebody had to fill up a canister of water and pour it over the LEGO turbine blades in order to activate the secret 9V battery and thus the light) and so at least tried to get across the notion that external energy is involved, by simply flicking a switch on the LEGO Vestas Wind Turbine not only do the lights light up but the wind turbine itself starts to spin. How asinine of a lesson to teach is that? "Flick a switch to get renewable energy!"
Moreover, whereas my hydroelectric power station was thought up and designed by a (covert) narcissist so that his son could look good so that he'd ultimately look good, LEGO's version (possibly marketed by a crack team of narcissists, if not just sycophants) gives off the air of virtuosity as well as the feel-good vibes of a boundless supply of so-called renewable energy, renewable energy that can power an incessantly growing consumer economy (and, as we'll soon see, LEGO toys that use considerably more electricity to play with than wooden blocks).
"Air of virtuosity" is no exaggeration, because while one of the LEGO Vestas Wind Turbine's 826 pieces (a tree) is made from a plant-based plastic sourced from sugarcane (sustainability!), of the 365 days of the year that LEGO could have released its ode to "celebrat[ing] renewable energy technology" it chose the one day of the year that shoppers literally trample over one another and even kill each other in order to secure the best deals out there – November 23rd, 2018. Aka, Black Friday.
Perhaps I'm looking into this a bit much, but to me it seems rather indicative of the underlying purpose of industrial-scale renewable energy when the toy that is ostensibly meant to be raising awareness about renewable energy amongst today's youth gets released on the day of the year dedicated more so than any other to crass consumerism (and by extension wanton energy usage).
Black Friday aside, the absurdities don't even end there. Because what I can't quite figure out is What's so much more virtuous about creating LEGO pieces out of a plant-based plastic sourced from sugarcane (let's put aside the fact that oil-based derivatives would have all but certainly been used in the growing, harvesting and processing of the sugarcane into plastic) versus the other 825 pieces that would have been constructed from plant-based plastics sourced from algae? Is sugarcane-based plastic more virtuous than algae-based plastic? And if so, why? Is it because the algae travels upon the intermediary step of being transformed into oil, black being evil while the green of sugarcane is wholesome and "eco"? Is LEGO perhaps ageist and thus prefers sugarcane that recently lived and died over algae that lived and died millions of years ago? Or does LEGO actually believe that they can sell more sets if 12-year-olds think they can suck on the trees to get their high?
I don't get it.
But perhaps more concerning than where LEGO derives its plastic from (and the fact that sugarcane- and/or any other kind of nouveau-based plastic will never amount to anything more than a fraction of a fraction of the world's creation of plastic) is the very relevant fact that not only is the LEGO Vestas Wind Turbine made in conjunction with Vestas (which has installed more than 65,000 wind turbines in nearly 80 countries), but that much like my built-out-of-LEGO-"That's cheating!" hydroelectric power station, this renewable energy LEGO set is also powered with a set of batteries (with six AAs rather than a 9V).
The intention here isn't to be purist and merely state that using fossil fuel-based batteries in a renewable energy toy set is hypocritical, but to point out that rather than this set being "designed to help raise awareness about renewable energy projects" (for those who've been living under a rock for the past 20 years?) it would have been infinitesimally more useful if the LEGO set had of been designed to help raise awareness about the dependence that industrial-scale renewable energy has on external energy sources for their construction, installation, maintenance, and decommission, as well as on a supply of finite rare earth metals. (According to a Dutch study that Nafeez Ahmed wrote about a couple of weeks ago, "current global supply of several critical metals is insufficient to transition to a renewable energy system".)
How much more useful would it have been if LEGO and Vestas had of just come out and said
Well you see boys and girls, just like the LEGO Vestas Wind Turbine needs the energy from batteries – derived from fossil fuels – to operate, those massive wind turbines you see in real life require fossil fuels for their construction, installation, maintenance and decommission. And once fossil fuels become too scarce and expensive it'll no longer be possible to continue expanding and maintaining industrial-scale renewable energy and it'll be back to an agrarian way of life for the vast majority of us.
No, you don't get balloons.
Because to put it a bit simplistically, just like tractors don't make baby tractors, industrial wind turbines don't make baby industrial wind turbines (the way that draft horses do in fact make baby draft horses). In other words, industrial-scale wind turbines (and the rest of the industrial-scale renewable energy system) not only don't – and never will – produce enough energy to power the entirety of industrial civilization as we know it, but they will certainly never have the leftover energy to mine all the rare earth metals as well as construct, install, maintain and decommission the ginormous structures. Fossil fuels are needed for all that, and it is the awareness of this that needs to be raised – and not merely with our youth.
"How to do that?" is the next question, and there's probably no better industry to take a page from for this than the tech industry itself, in particular its products designed with planned obsolescence. Because if we tried turning planned obsolescence on its head for good, what if LEGO were to design a renewable energy set that – after a proscribed period of time (two months?) or number of uses (50 flicks of the switch?) – self-destructed and became no longer usable? After this point the owner could go to the shop to have the single broken piece replaced and/or repaired, the replacement/repair-job costing 150% of the original purchase price. Either that or the owner of the no-longer-working LEGO renewable energy set could buy a brand new set for another $199 if they so wanted (and were so stupid), once again with an "expiry date" due to its planned obsolescence.
Not only would I of course never expect LEGO to partake in such an activity and to instead continue with its utterly pathetic greenwashing, but LEGO is actually moving in the opposite direction. Because just thirteen days after releasing the LEGO Vestas Wind Turbine set LEGO released its first ever iOS app utilising AR (augmented reality) technology, one in which "selected physical... [LEGO] sets [are brought] to life with exciting effects, animations and interactions", and whereby "users can... share power-ups and 3D assets... and even compare high scores with friends."
So which is it then? Are we actually serious about cutting back on our energy consumption so as to ward off the worst effects of climate change, or are we dead set on essentially upgrading and progressing from simple wooden toys to those requiring greater and greater amounts of fossil fuel energy for their usage, simultaneously selling ourselves and our children the lie of an industrial civilization that can be sustained with renewable energy?
If that's not a rhetorical question then I'll let you in on the "secret" that when in Canada about a decade ago I made the specific effort to get rid of that LEGO train set as well as much of my LEGO that my father was holding onto for any possible grandkids. Not only would I prefer any possible children of mine to not be playing with miniature electrified transportation systems, but I'd also rather prefer them to not have to get inundated with that overly-mechanistic way of thinking that LEGO imposes on young minds and which we'll be needing less and less in the coming years. (Not to say that I have anything but the fondest of memories of playing with LEGO with my brother and friends, save for those times that I stepped on a LEGO piece with bare feet.)
I am of course one of the outliers though, because as a society we've most certainly decided to side with the pathologically lying, fraudulent narcissists and all their sycophants extolling the industrial-scale renewable energy sham, replete with $199 toy (LEGO) sets. As far as I see it there really isn't much good to say about LEGO today, and if I can offer a bit of an exit then perhaps today's situation can be encapsulated via the results of a recent set of experiments conducted by researchers in Australia and the United Kingdom, published late-November in The Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health.
Seeing how toy parts are the second most common foreign object swallowed by children, the researchers sought to alleviate the worry of concerned parents by partaking in the "noble tradition of self-experimentation" by each ingesting a head from a LEGO figure and seeing how long it would take to pass through their bowels. As stated by one of the report's authors,
For most people it was passed after one to three stools. But for poor [researcher Damien Roland], he didn't find his, so we made him search every stool for two weeks. I passed it on the first stool afterwards and was very relieved.
Whatever did happen to poor Damien's LEGO head? As far as I can see it there's only two answers that can explain the situation: either Damien's digestive system actually broke down the plastic and possibly discovered how to digest ancient algae, or, and as is much more likely –
LEGO – to go along with the industrial-scale renewable energy system – is now indistinguishable from a piece of shit.