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Windpower Is Not an Infant Industry!

“The use of wind power is as old as history.”

- Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 62.

“The Federal Power Commission became interested in the Grandpa’s Knob [windpower] experiment during World War II, and commissioned Percy H. Thomas, a senior engineer of the commission, to investigate the potential of wind power production for the entire country. Thomas’ survey, Electric Power from the Wind, was published in March 1945.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 545.

Last week I posted on the long history of solar energy to make the point that this technology is not an infant industry. The fact that solar cannot compete against grid electricity (off grid is another matter) today is proof positive that there is an inherent disadvantage with the dilute, intermittent flow of sunlight in the thriving carbon-based energy era.

Windpower is another case of bad economics and bad quality. Wind is actually worse than solar because micro wind for off the grid is not a niche market. Ever seen a wind turbine in the middle of nowhere powering something? I haven’t. But I have seen solar panels in the middle of nowhere doing the work of electricity.

Old Stuff

My post, “Wind: Energy Past, Not Energy Future,” documented how 19th century economists unmasked wind as an inferior energy. Here is one example–see my post on W. S. Jevons (1865) for more.

The quotations below document how wind was a primary energy prior to the age of coal and how various developers have tried to commercialize wind without success.

“Energy from the wind is not new. Two hundred years ago windmills were a common feature of the European landscape; for example, in 1800 there were over 10,000 working windmills in Britain. During the past few years they have again become familiar on the skyline especially in countries in western Europe (for instance, Denmark, Great Britain and Spain) and in western North America. Slim, tall, sleek objects silhouetted against the sky, they do not have the rustic elegance of the old windmills, but they much more efficient.”

- John Houghton, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 7.

“Before rural electrification in the 1920 and 1930s, more than 8 million Midwestern windmills pumped water, made electricity, and ground grain. Carbon-fired power plants made these small windmills obsolete.”

- Dennis Hayes, The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair (Washington: Island Press, 2000), p. 39.

 “Wind energy has been used since at least 200 B.C. for grinding grain and pumping water. By 1900, windmills were used on farms and ranches in the United States to pump water and, eventually, to produce electricity. Windmills developed into modern-day wind turbines.”

- Report of the National Energy Policy Development Group to the Honorable George W. Bush, National Energy Policy: Reliable, Affordable, and Environmentally Sound Energy for America’s Future, May 2001, p. 6-6.

“Wind power also has considerable potential in some developing countries. Employed widely by American Midwestern farmers in the twenties before rural electrification, wind generators are proving effective in similar settings in the Third World.”

- Christopher Flavin, “Electricity for a Developing World: New Directions,” Worldwatch Paper 70, Worldwatch Institute, June 1986, p. 52.

“The most numerous windmills of the nineteenth century were of a very different design: they served small farms and railway stations on the windy Great Plains during the period of rapid westward expansion.”

- Vaclav Smil, Energies (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), p. 125.

“Until the early nineteenth century windmills in common use were roughly as powerful as their contemporary water-driven mills. We have no reliable estimates for earlier centuries, but after 1700 European post mills rated mostly between 1.5 and 6 kilowatts, and tower mills between 5 and 10 kilowatts in terms of useful power.”

- Vaclav Smil, Energies (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), p. 125.

“Early in this century Danish industry relied on wind power for one-quarter of its energy, and 150-200 megawatts of wind capacity were installed throughout the country.”

- Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy: Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81, Worldwatch Institute, January 1988, p. 36.

 “Wind energy is not some exotic new technology like nuclear power. Only wind energy’s current manifestation is new. We have lived peacefully with the wind before, and we can do so again. Wind turbines could become as common on the European landscape as windmills once were.”

- Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), p. 482.

 “The LDCs may well find considerable overall benefit in the use of wind power as a prime source of mechanical power, as well as in the generation for electricity, by harking back to small-unit technologies that proved so useful in rural Europe and America not too long ago.”

- Panel on Renewable Energy Resources, Energy for Rural Development: Renewable Resources and Alternative Technologies for Developing Countries (Washington: National Academy of Sciences, 1976), pp. 7-8.

“Another technology increasingly used to harness nature’s power was the windmill. Originating in China, it made its way across Europe into Britain, from the South and the East, by the end of the twelfth century. This technology was a valuable introduction in regions with little water, which needed power to meet the growing demand for industrial products. The Domesday Book, in 1086, recorded 6,082 water or wind mills in England; by 1300, there were over 12,000 mills.”

- Roger Fouquet and Peter Pearson, “A Thousand Years of Energy Use in the United Kingdom,” The Energy Journal, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1998, p. 7.

“Energy from the wind is not new. Two hundred years ago windmills were a common feature of the European landscape; for example, in 1800 there were over 10,000 working windmills in Britain. During the past few years they have again become familiar on the skyline especially in countries in western Europe (for instance, Denmark, Great Britain and Spain) and in western North America. Slim, tall, sleek objects silhouetted against the sky, they do not have the rustic elegance of the old windmills, but they much more efficient.”

- John Houghton, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 7.

The windmill . . . had been developed in Persia in the seventh century. By the thirteenth century, windmills were common in Europe, with significant advances being made by the Dutch and the English.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 4.

“The role of wind energy has historically been a major factor in the development of human civilization, with wind powering the early sailing ship as well as the first major source of mechanical power, the windmill.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 513.

“From ancient times up until the nineteenth century, the manufacture and use of sailing ships determined the economic and political power of nations. The first known use of sailing ships was by the Egyptians in 2800 B.C.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 516.

“The first uses of the wind for mechanical power appear to have been developed in Persia, where, in the province of Segistan, water was pumped for irrigation by windmills. Between the seventh and tenth centuries, windmills were firmly established in Persia.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), pp. 519-520.

“The first account of windmills in the Western world was in the twelfth century, when, in 1105, a French permit was issued for construction of windmills. In 1180, a Norman deed reports the existence of a windmill in Britain. . . . By the thirteenth century, windmills were common in northern Europe.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 520.

“During the latter part of the thirteenth century, more than 30,000 windmills operating in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and England produced the equivalent (in mechanical power) of 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 521.

“By the end of the nineteenth century, a mature industry had developed in the midwestern United States to equip homesteaders and ranchers with mills. Between 1880 and 1900, the combined capital investment of the American windmill industry increased from less than $700,000 to $4.3 million. At the same time, fierce competition spurred the development of lasting and efficient machines.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 522.

“U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company of Batavia, Illinois, conducted intensive experiments in 1882 and 1883 on various kinds of windmills to determine the best possible machine for use. Part of their investigation involved building windmills to the specifications offered by Englishman John Smeaton, in his work of the previous century. Smeaton observed in 1759 that fewer sails were needed to extract the equivalent amount of power.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 522.

“The American windmill industry continued to grow in the early twentieth century, until other sources of power invaded the prairies. In the 1920s, companies began to develop wind-powered electric generators. By the 1930s, the death knell was sounded for wind machines of both the water-pumping and the electric-generating variety [by] the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) [which] . . . provide[d] federally subsidized power to America’s farmers in regions remote from privately financed power plants.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), pp. 523-24.

“During the second World War, a massive 1,250-kilowatt wind electrical station was operated at ‘Grandpa’s Knob’ in the mountains of central Vermont. . . . The 1,250 kilowatts of power that the wind generator produced during sporadic periods of operation were fed into the lines of Central Vermont Public Service Corporation. The plant was conceived and designed by Palmer C. Putnam, an engineer who had become interested in wind power in the early 1930s when he built a house on Cape Cod only to find both the winds and electric utility rates ‘surprisingly high.’”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), pp. 541-42.

“With wind energy, one is not dealing with exotic new techniques. Windmills have been used for centuries for pumping water and other purposes, and within the past century they have been widely used in rural areas to generate electricity.”

- Sam Schurr et. al., Energy in America’s Future: The Choices Before Us (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 311.

“The capital costs for a modern wind energy generator have been variously estimated [in 1979 dollars] from as low as $250 to as high as $1,400 per kilowatt. However, a study done for this project predicts within the next decade a capital cost of $930 per kilowatt on the basis of independent estimates of subsystem costs, and that figure has been used to project total costs.”

- Sam Schurr et. al., Energy in America’s Future: The Choices Before Us (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), pp. 312-13.

10 comments

1 John Droz { 10.13.09 at 7:00 am }

The short version is that wind energy is pre-modern technology.

Advocating using such a source for generating electricity is akin to promoting horse drawn vehicles to replace cars (which would save material amounts of CO2).

2 TheLastMan { 10.13.09 at 7:04 am }

Very good points made. It seems to me that the big engineering challenge facing all alternative energy sources is economical energy storage. Wind power can work if the energy it produces can be cheaply and reliably stored, transported and converted to electrical energy when needed.

I gather that the capital cost of creating water electrolysis systems is coming down with catalyst doped plastic electrodes. For local use the hydrogen could be stored and then converted back using a fuel cell provided the capital and maintenance costs are not too great.

p.s. Is it possible (and economical) to combine H2 with CO2 to create H2O and CH4 (8H + CO2 = CH4 + 2H2O)?

If so, for industrial scale installations the electricity could be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then the hydrogen could be combined with atmospheric CO2 to create Methane and Water. The Methane could then be further converted into Ethane, Propane or Butane if extra stability and transportability is required. Pipedream?

3 rbradley { 10.13.09 at 8:06 am }

Last Man:

The economical battery befuddled Thomas Edison and it befuddles us a century later. See: http://masterresource.org/?p=4117

4 Denny { 10.13.09 at 1:09 pm }

TheLastMan, with “Free Enterprise” for what’s left of it, anything is possible! Just confirm the Data, I always state! Confirm the Data!

5 TheLastMan { 10.13.09 at 2:18 pm }

“The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil” — Sheikh Zaki Yamani

Free enterprise will eventually replace oil as our main fuel once all the “easy” oil has been extracted. A friend who is an executive of an oil exploration company tells me that “peak oil” was 2005. From now on the cost of extracting, refining and distributing oil will rise inexorably to the extent that the alternatives will become more economic – or better for other reasons.

Personally I don’t think that this will be the total end of the Internal Combustion Engine, it is simply too efficient, just that it may become a hybrid with an electric motor and use a different fuel. Hydrogen? Methane? Methanol? The market will decide!

6 TheLastMan { 10.14.09 at 9:14 am }

Love this blog! It is a real education. I discovered it via a link from Real Climate (now there’s an irony) where Gavin said your piece about cherry picking warming data was “Vaguely OK” – which is major praise from that quarter.

I am not as skeptical as you seem to be, although I have my doubts about the more alarming AGW predictions. However I find all the argument about whether, how much and when rather dry and boring. I am much more interested in the economics of alternative energy sources and am very worried that crass Government interference is distorting the market and damaging the environement. Why the heck are we subsidising the purchase of maize from the mouths of starving Mexican peasants to turn into ethanol to feed our cars? Lunacy!

Here in the UK we are covering our national parks in wind farms and the Govt are proposing the Severn Barage, a huge damn across this country’s biggest tidal estuary – a refuge for millions of wading birds and a precious natural habitat. Madness!

As you say in your latest piece, we should get the engineering, economics and environmental impacts right before we launch into these large scale projects.

One thing that puzzles me though. I am not sure what you are getting at with your pieces on how solar and wind power are not “infant industries”. So what? Windmills in old Amsterdam were economic in their time, and 600ft 5MW wind turbines might become economic in ours – provided they are put in the right place (in the UK that is offshore to our west). Old technology can be improved so that it goes from uneconomic to profitable.

I cannot think of a single industry that is an “infant” by your classification. Computers are not an infant industry – after all they were using the abacus in Mesopotamia 4,700 years ago.

Your piece about Edison and the battery was interesting history, however Edison was talking about bottles with slabs of lead and pints of acid. His comments about electric cars might have been different if he had known about modern Lithium battery technology.

7 John Droz { 10.14.09 at 6:41 pm }

TheLastMan:

Dr. Bradley can speak for himslef, but my guess is that he is clarifying that wind energy is not an infoant industry, as that is one of the main reasons that wind power lobbyists use to demand ever increasing subsidies —” until it gets on its feet.”

Rubbish. See EnergyPresentation.Info

8 Windpower Is Not an Infant Industry! « { 10.21.09 at 1:07 pm }

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9 Rod Adams { 10.21.09 at 3:07 pm }

TheLastMan – you skipped over the best fuels for replacing fossil fuels.

I am a uranium, thorium and plutonium fan. The densely concentrated nature and zero emissions leads to a better, cheaper power source that will last for thousands of years.

Unlike the wind, sun and hydrocarbons, atomic fission is “new” in the sense that there are still people alive today who were adults when it was first discovered.

10 Try it, you’ll like it « Peace, Order and Good Government { 03.03.10 at 6:44 am }

[...] Windpower Is Not an Infant Industry! [...]

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