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Why People Hate Wind Turbines

15 Mar
A Wind farm. The wind turbines are manufacture...

Image via Wikipedia

Among renewable energy technologies, wind turbines have the odd distinction of being at once the most celebrated and the most reviled. People either love wind turbines, or hate them. With a passion. 

Take, for example, the battle over Cape Wind—the long delayed, highly contentious standoff between wind developer Jim Gordon and wealthy residents of Cape Cod who’ve spent millions to keep wind turbines from sullying the view from their private beaches. Then there are the “wind syndrome” alarmists, who claim that sonic vibrations from wind turbines can drive those living in the sinister shadows of wind turbines literally mad.

Why do wind turbines attract such vehement opposition? By way of suggesting an answer, it’s worth noting that passionate, often irrational hatred of wind turbines is nothing new. In an ill-tempered essay in the Los Angeles Times in 1984, urban planner Sylvia White painted the wind industry as an unstoppable force laying waste to fragile California ecosystems. Plus, she argued, wind turbines are ugly. “Seen from several miles away, the motion of the turbines may seem graceful as the blades sparkle in the sun,” she allowed. “But, in truth, the wind machines, with their awkward stalky appearance strangely reminiscent of oil rigs, deface the landscape.” Ouch.

In 1985, prefiguring the Cape Wind brouhaha, the mayor of Palm Springs led a campaign against a developer proposing to build a wind farm along the highway leading to the resort town. “Every time I go out I see more windmills and get madder’n hell,” said the Mayor, Frank M. Bogert, to a reporter from The New York Times.

The common denominator, past and present, is visual. Rarely, if ever, do wind critics challenge the underlying technology of wind turbines. After all, it’s difficult to find much fault with highly efficient, electricity-producing machines powered by a free, clean, renewable fuel. Rather, it’s the optics of wind turbines that drive a small but vocal cohort of anti-wind activists into a tizzy. And to a certain extent this is understandable. Because industrial wind turbines are undeniably huge. Unlike ground-hugging, relatively unobtrusive solar panels, turbines are utterly conspicuous. If you’ve ever driven by a wind farm or glimpsed one from a distance, you can’t deny that they do indeed alter the landscape. And offshore wind farms, when visible from the shore, alter the seascape. (Although many offshore wind plants, including the proposed design for Cape Wind, are far enough away from the shore that they’re visible only on the clearest of days, and then only barely visible.)

But does visibility necessarily translate to ugliness? Whether you believe that wind turbines are elegant, sculptural additions to the landscape or ugly industrial blemishes is of course largely a matter of opinion. But here’s the rub: however you may perceive them, wind turbines should be visible. For too long we’ve been accustomed to energy being invisible. Or, more specifically, we’ve come to expect that the plants and machines that produce electricity be out-of-the-way. And with good reason. Coal-fired power plants, from which we derive most of our electricity, are dirty, loud, and ugly. (It will come as a surprise to those not in the know that something as odorless, silent, and seemingly ephemeral as electricity requires so much dark, dirty coal and loud, clanging machinery to produce it and results in such a huge volume of toxic waste.)

But invisibility also leads to ignorance of how energy is made. And it leads to apathy. And that’s a problem for a few reasons. First because it results in careless, uninformed energy use. And second because it’s never good for the vast majority of people to be so completely removed from and ignorant of the technologies and machines and places that make the stuff without which our globalized, massively networked civilization would not exist.

So even putting aside my entirely personal, subjective opinion that wind turbines look cool and majestic, I say bring ‘em on. The more visible they are, the better. Beyond the fact that they channel a free, renewable fuel and convert it to electricity at reasonable prices, wind turbines serve the valuable purpose of bringing power generation out of the shadows and into the light.

Why the U.S. Needs a Renewable Energy Policy

10 Feb

Why the U.S. Needs a Comprehensive Energy Policy

In his 2011 State of the Union speech and in dozens of recent public appearances, President Obama has talked up clean energy setting a goal for the United States to produce a whopping 80 percent of its electricity from “clean energy sources” (including nuclear, natural gas, and “clean(er) coal”) by 2035. It’s an ambitious, welcome goal. But how realistic is it without a comprehensive energy policy pushing wind, solar, biofuels, and other renewables? I spoke with Bruce Bailey, CEO of the renewable energy consultancy firm AWS Truepower about the importance of a national energy policy

Why does the United States need a national energy policy favorable to renewables like wind and solar?

Because without one, it’s nearly impossible to establish a long-term market for wind farms and solar farms and other renewable energy technologies. We’ve had short-term production tax credits, but they come and go. When a credit for wind energy is on the verge of expiring, for example, development in that sector stops until there’s confidence that the tax credits will be extended. The uncertainty discourages investment. Some states, like California early on and more recently Colorado and many others, have taken the lead by adopting far-reaching renewable energy mandates and tax incentives to encourage economic growth. But we still need a comprehensive federal policy to send the strongest possible signal that the United States is behind renewable energy and willing to push it.

Given the lack of a federal policy, how realistic is President Obama’s goal of producing 80 percent of electricity in the U.S. by 2035?

It’s hard to say, but a federal program would certainly help. Countries that do have a federal energy plan supporting renewables have seen double digit penetrations of wind, for example. Denmark generates around 20 percent of its electricity from wind. Germany is in double digits with wind and solar. And China is forging ahead with large scale wind and solar plants. Germany and Denmark are much smaller than the United States, of course, and there are other important differences in our political structure and culture. But there are examples out there of countries that have used a strong national policy to take the lead in renewable energy.

So why doesn’t the U.S. have a national energy policy that supports renewables?

Both parties support renewables, so there’s lots of common ground. But most of the legislation concerning renewable energy that’s been proposed has been attached to bigger picture issues like cap and trade, oil exploration in Alaska, and other controversial issues that tend to be show stoppers. Renewable energy is attached to those bills to make them seem more attractive and to get them passed, but the controversial stuff ends up derailing the attractive renewable energy proposals. And, of course, other issues like the economic crisis, health care, and immigration reform have gotten in the way. People want renewable energy, but they’re often confused by its upfront costs and uncertain about its true benefits.

What sort of renewable federal renewable energy policy would you like to see?

I’d like to see a policy that recognizes that renewable energy technologies need the same type of government support that our current power generating sources received during their early years. Many people don’t understand or have forgotten that, for the most part, our energy infrastructure was driven by federal mandates to build power plants and transmission lines. And oil companies have enjoyed generous government support for many decades. Now wind and solar come along needing the same government boost, but the game has changed. Today, the private sector builds and controls power generation. The trajectory has gone from the government investing in energy for the public good to agreeing that we need renewables but allowing the market to dictate how, if at all, they’re going to happen. So renewables are expected to struggle to gain a foothold without federal support by competing with coal, oil, and natural gas–industries that have received and continue to enjoy substantial federal incentives. It’s a very uneven playing field, and federal policy supporting renewable energy could do a lot to level it.

Knowing Which Way the Wind Blows

6 Jan
Map showing estimated wind resources and exist...

Image via Wikipedia

“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows,” Bob Dylan once sang. But if you’re a wind farm developer, you absolutely do need someone to help you know not only which way the wind blows, but also where, when, how often, and for how long. That’s where wind energy forecasting comes in.

“The knock against wind has always been that it can’t provide consistent, high-grade power because it’s unpredictable and intermittent,” says Kristin Larson, manager of wind energy forecasting at Seattle-based 3TIER, a renewable energy “information-to-decision” company that provides developers with data on wind, solar, and hydropower resources. “But with wind energy forecasting we remove a lot of that uncertainty by using sophisticated tools to predict how much wind there will be in a given location over time.”

Like most wind forecasting companies, 3TIER compares short-term wind data at a potential wind farm site with long-term measurements going back as much as 50 years. (Much of the long-term information comes from weather balloons, satellites, and surface observations at airports around the world.) Using powerful computers to crunch the numbers, wind forecasters can provide an accurate portrait of a site’s wind resources, past, present, and future.

What really matters for wind farm developers (and their potential sources of funding), though, is the degree of accuracy with which forecasters can predict how the wind blows. Wind is notoriously sensitive to changes in temperature, terrain, humidity, and other factors. Even a relatively small change in elevation from one location to another can result in significant differences in wind speed. For example, as a recent article in The Economist noted, a 2009 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that an elevation difference of only 50 meters caused changed average wind speed by 2.5 mph–enough of a variation to affect as much as 15 percent of a wind farm’s power output.

So wind forecasters strive to be as accurate as possible by designing computer models that take into account not only past and present weather and topography data but also possible future changes. “Wind developers need to know not just what the wind is doing now but what it will do in the future,” says 3TIER’s Larson. “That depends on climate change, tree growth or loss of trees, land development and lots of other factors.”

In other words, wind forecasting is a tricky, difficult business. 3TIER specializes in numerical weather prediction (NWP)–a common technique that creates a 3-D grid model of the atmosphere and plugging in temperature, humidity, and air pressure data from a proposed wind farm location to simulate wind speed. Wind developers use that information to calculate how much power their turbines will generate over time.

Wind forecasting has been around in one form or another since the late 19th century, when Danish wind power pioneer Poul la Cour did some of the earliest scientific studies of the relationship between wind, land, and climate. Today’s forecasting technology is a big leap forward and will continue to improve, Larson predicts, as wind power continues to grow. “The technology is already pretty mature, it’s just not used as widely as it could be,” she says. “But as more wind power comes online and feeds into the grid, operators will come to see the value of better and more accurate wind predictions.”

New Chapter Excerpt: Charles Brush’s Electrifying Wind Dynamo

14 Dec
Charles Francis Brush, (March 17, 1849 – June ...

Image via Wikipedia

It was the summer of 1887, and Charles Brush was at it again.

Which in itself was no great surprise. In the 1880s, Clevelanders out for an evening stroll along Euclid Avenue–home to many of the city’s most palatial dwellings–were used to strange goings on at the Brush mansion.  Most nights, passersby could glimpse sudden, bright flashes through the windows of Brush’s basement laboratory, where the esteemed inventor tinkered with dynamos, electromagnet, and other accouterments of electricity–the seemingly magical force transforming modern life.

Read on …

Prospecting for Wind

17 Nov
Map showing estimated wind resources and exist...

Image via Wikipedia

Now that I’m working on a chapter about wind power, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about … wind. What is wind and how does it work? On the one hand it’s simple–wind happens what warm air rises and cooler air rushed in to replace it. But when and how much wind blow in a given area — that’s more complex. It depends on temperature, topography, land use, and dozens of other constantly shifting factors.

Knowing when and where wind blows, and how much it blows in a given place, is important the wind power, for pretty obvious reasons. Before plunking down millions to build a wind farm, a developer has to know with as much certainty as possible if there’s going to be enough wind five, 10, and even 30 years down the road to make the investment worthwhile.

So how can you predict something as ephemeral and shifting as wind? To find out, I recently spoke with Kristin Larson, an atmospheric scientist at a Seattle-based energy information company called 3TIER. I’ll blog in more detail about the science of wind forecasting another time. For now, long story short, scientists like Kristin, who specializes in wind forecasting, use a variety of tools to make predictions, including models that crunch more than a half century’s worth of weather data from around the world. The company uses the data-fed models to create highly detailed wind maps, allowing wind farm developers to scout the most promising locations.

It’s worth digging deeper into the science. But for now, check out this video from 3Tier …

Interview with Angelika Pullen, communications director of the Global Wind Energy Council

3 Nov


JS: In the recent mid-term elections in the United States the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives and closed the gap in the Senate. What does this mean for the future of wind power and renewable energy generally?

AP: It’s hard to say for sure, but the sort of political happening in the U.S. generally doesn’t bode well for renewables. In many European countries like Germany, Spain, and Denmark, there’s strong and steady political commitment to renewable energy, so I’m very optimistic about the European Union’s goal of producing 20% of all energy from renewable sources. That’s going to happen because it’s policy that’s legally binding on all EU member states. As a result, investor confidence is there, and so people go out and build wind farms.

In the U.S. that’s much more tricky because the commitment hasn’t been there on the political level. Investors [in wind and solar farms and other renewable projects] need long-term [market] stability in order to make large up-front investments. But without that long-term commitment at the federal level, it’s just not going to happen. From a European point of view it seems to be a product of how the U.S. political system works. The president may have a strong commitment to renewable energy but can’t push policy through Congress. And then there’s the political power of the coal states.

So when it comes to wind, compared to Europe and China especially, the U.S. market is trailing badly and is in disarray at the moment. Last year set a record for wind installations in the U.S. thanks mainly to stimulus money, but in 2011 that will be cut nearly in half.

JS: Nevertheless, during the past few decades wind energy has seen steady and impressive growth around the world. What have been some of the most exciting and significant developments in wind energy?

AP: After an initial spurt of activity in California in the 1980s, which didn’t go very far, wind really got going in Europe in the 90s when countries including Denmark, Germany, and later Spain began taking political action to support wind power, largely through feed-in tariffs. That’s been very successful. The European Union also introduced legislation for specific targets for renewable energy, which incentivized all member states.  In the U.S., what we have seen is that wherever governments, typically state governments, make conscious decision to support renewable energy, that provides a framework and leads to significant development. And where the political framework is not in place, renewable tend to not take hold.  I think something like 30 states in the U.S. have introduced renewable portfolio standards, which is great. But it’s still missing an overarching national policy that will provide longer-term commitments.

JS: How important is the U.S. when it comes to the future of wind energy?

AP: The U.S. used to be more important than it is today. America still comprises an important chunk of global market, but its share is shrinking every year. This year we’re seeing a U.S. [wind energy] market that’s very slow. Yet globally the market for wind energy is growing, led by China.

JS: The wind energy market may be growing, but it still represents only a tiny percentage of the global energy economy. How do you respond to critics claiming that wind is and can only ever by a niche energy technology?

AP: It depends how and where you look. In some markets where wind energy has grown significantly, it already generates a fair chunk of electricity. In Denmark, for example, 20% of electricity comes from wind. In Spain it’s 15%, and in some parts of Germany already 50%. Globally wind may still be very small, but that’s partly because in many parts of world we haven’t started scratching the surface. We’re seeing very promising signs of development in big, largely untapped regions like Latin America. Some studies claim that the wind resources in Argentina alone could power the entire continent.

JS: One problem that’s always dogged wind power is the fact that wind doesn’t always blow. Since there are not yet any viable means of storing excess electricity generated by wind, how do you answer critics who claim that the intermittent nature of wind makes it an unreliable source of power?

AP: First, I don’t to describe wind as “intermittent,” which means starting and stopping. It’s rarely the case that wind has either completely stopped or is blowing at full blast. It’s normally somewhere in between. More accurately, wind is variable, depending on how strongly the wind blows in any part of a particular area. The variability of wind can be managed in two ways–first by improved forecasting, which helps wind farm developers and operators know beforehand how strongly and how often wind blows in a given region. So when it comes to the demand for electricity, the variability of wind can be factored into the larger picture. The way is through interconnection, meaning having a big, integrated electricity system to capture wind that’s always blowing somewhere. If you have a large system, like in Northern Europe, doesn’t matter if wind ceases to blow in some part of Denmark because there will be areas in Germany where the wind is still blowing. So wind-blow electricity from one region can be shuttled to other areas where wind has temporarily died down.



DOE Wind Power Documentary from early 1980s (maybe)

11 Oct

I came across this short documentary on wind power, produced by the U.S. Department of Energy.  Not sure when it was made–probably the late 1970s or early 80s.  Anyhow, it’s worth watching from a historical perspective.  And the soundtrack is kinda groovy.

The Story of a Windmill

7 Oct


Icon of Wind Turbines

Image via Wikipedia


I’m starting a new chapter, on wind power, and have spent the past few days digging into newspaper archives (digital digging, that is) to learn about the history of windmills and wind power.  I came across a strange story published in the Chicago Daily Tribune, August 31, 1873, titled “The Story of a Windmill.”  I can’t quite tell whether it’s made up or not, or if it’s meant to be funny.  In any case, here it is:

“We went out to Slaymaker’s in June, to spend the summer, but we have been obliged to leave. Slaymaker had a small stream near his house, from which he used to pump water into the tank in hisgarrot.  It occured to him some time ago that it would be a good idea to put up a windmill which co do the pumping for him, so he built one at a cost of $200.  The first day it began to revolve it frightened Slaymaker’s best horse so that it ran against the fence and was killed, and the arms were so long that they nearly brained Slaymaker’s oldest boy, who was standing beneath watching the machine, when it suddenly stopped work, and refused to move an inch.  Slaymaker accordingly pumped the tank full, and just as he stopped the mill began to pump like fury. Slaymaker, in alarm, procured a rope and tied one of the wings to a tree. When the tank was empty he tried to make the windmill fill it again, but the concern was immovable. Then Slaymaker waited for a couple of weeks, and carried the water up to the house in buckets, because he was afraid to fill the tank, when the mil might get to work at any moment. Finally, as there seemed to be no hope of the machinery getting all right again, he did pump the tank full, and then went to bed. That night there was the first hurricane ever known in that neighborhood. The windmill made about found hundred revolutions a minute, and left the bed of the stream below it completely dry, while it poured nearly six hundred gallons an hour into Slaymaker’s garret. The boarders all swam out the windows, and spent the rest of the night in the barn, while Slaymaker took to a tree, from which, at daylight, he had a magnificent view of the falls as they poured picturesquely from the attic windows every minute or two brining out with them a chair or a hair trunk, or one of Slaymaker’s shirts, or a waistband. Mrs. Slaymaker will not clean house this summer, but Slaymaker has a windmill that he is anxious to sell. He will probably close it out cheap to a purchasers who wants to take it away right off.–Max Adeler.”

Colorado Research Trip Pics

26 Mar

Just got back from my Colorado research trip. Very successful. I met with scientists and researchers from the Rocky Mountain Institute, UC Boulder, Colorado State, SunDrop Biofuels, the Denver International Airport’s solar installations, and other places. I learned a lot, got great material, and took a lot of pictures …

Rocky Mountain Institute office in Boulder, CO

Notice the straight air ducts descending diagonally from the ceiling. They’re designed to channel air more efficiently than ducts with numerous twists and turns. The RMI building also features windows specially treated to trap solar heat and lots of natural lighting.

RMI’s non-water-flushing toilet.

SunDrop Biofuel’s solar collecting tower. Thousands of mirrors reflect sunlight onto a large plate that heats to around 1200 degrees C. The heat is used to turn a mixture of woodchips and chemicals into gas that’s then refined into gasoline and diesel.

A smart grid test station at Colorado State, in Fort Collins.

A large wind turbine barely visible through a dense snowstorm at the National Wind Technology Center.

A many-tubed apparatus at NREL’s wind-to-hydrogen project using solar and wind-generated electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is stored and used in fuel cells and internal combustion engines.

Part of a wind turbine blade. These things are freaking huge. On the largest turbines, each blade is somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 feet long. So in terms of sheer length and width, a rotating large scale turbine is like a spinning football field.

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