A Free-Market Energy Blog

“Wind Power: A Turning Point” (Revisiting Worldwatch Institute Paper #45 from 1981)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- May 6, 2013

“From all signs, the wind-energy field has reached that all-important turning point.”

– C. Flavin, Wind Power: A Turning Point (Worldwatch Institute: July 1981), p. 47.

Christopher Flavin, long associated with the Washington, DC-based Worldwatch Institute (see appendix below), was among the most thoughtful and prolific energy writer in the neo-Malthusian energy/environmentalist camp. His tone was positive, his writing clear, and his research well documented. Flavin’s work is scholarly compared to his (shrill) predecessor, Lester Brown, the founder of WorldWatch. Still, Flavin’s final products are little more than lawyer briefs for energy/climate alarmism.

Flavin is now paying the price for assuming alarmism to hype market-incorrect energies. He banked on wind and solar as primary energies despite the fact that they were dilute, intermittent, and environmentally invasive. Flavin pretty much forgot his early caution and warnings about windpower (see his introduction to Paul Gipe’s Windpower Comes of Age).

Flavin’s writings on the inevitability of windpower and the global warming issue inspired none other than Ken Lay, whose Enron invested in and lost money with solar, wind, and energy efficiency. That is a story for another time.

“Oil Short” World

Here is Flavin’s bio at the time of this piece, which reveals another spectacularly wrong prediction from the title of his then new book.

Christopher Flavin is a Senior Researcher with Worldwatch Institute and coauthor of Running on Empty: The Future of the Automobile in an Oil-Short World (W. W. Norton: 1979). His research deals with renewable energy technologies and policies. He is a graduate of Williams College where he studied Economics and Biology and participated in the Environmental Studies Program.

Williams College … Environmental Studies Program … Any chance that this student studied Julian Simon or market-process economics? Read Jevons’s  The Coal Question (1865) to understand the curse of diluteness and unreliability in the new fossil-fuel age? Very probably not, which leads the criticism to the professors whose own ignorance and biases lead to intergenerational problems.

Wind Hype Circa 1981

Wind Power: A Turning Point was published just as world oil markets were turning to surplus after repeal of price and allocation controls. 1981 was also eleven years before the enactment of the Production Tax Credit, which, along with state renewable mandates, fueled the artificial boom in evidence today.

The book begins:

Wind power may be a breath of fresh air on the world energy scene during the eighties. Already in 1981, wind energy is a rapidly expanding field with far more immediate potential than most people realize.

The ambitious and largely successful research and development efforts of the seventies gave rise to a variety off commercial ventures and utility programs to harness the wind. 

In many countries, substantial numbers of wind machines are being installed for the first time in over 50 years. Behind these developments are a wealth of recent studies showing wind power to be an eminently practical and potentially substantial source of electricity and direct mechanical power.”

The 56-page study ends:

The technology for harnessing the wind has come a long way in the last decade, but the progress made so far could be dwarfed by the advances in the next 10 to 15 years…. Cautious engineers and technocrats who earlier steered clear of “unconventional” technologies are now enthused about wind power. From rural development planners to utility executives, many people are now convinced that wind energy’s time has come.

If the impressive technical achievements of the recent past are matched by effective industry and government policies, wind power could develop very rapidly. From all signs, the wind-energy field has reached that all-important turning point.

Conclusion: Time to Recant?

It is entertaining and even humorous to bring up the “oil short world” and wind power’s “turning point” in today’s energy debate. Oil is more abundant than ever and growing in reserves and resources as technology improves. Wind power remains intermittent and government-dependent some decades after Flavin declared its tipping point reached.

But it is not funny that decades of government subsidy flowed from such early hype. The author made a difference, but not in a positive way for consumers, the taxpayers, and even the environment is concerned.

The opportunity now is for Mr. Flavin, in quasi-retirement, to not fade away “in denial” but to set the record straight and point us to an energy-rich world. That future is oil, gas, and coal–and other forms of energy that prove their niche in the marketplace in particular time and space (prominently including off-grid solar).

Such a reconsideration is timely given that global warming has “paused” (James Hansen), and climate sensitivity estimates are coming down. Meanwhile, the Hockey Stick I and II have been pummeled by Internet peer-review to remove the paleo argument characterizing 20th century warming as unprecedented. The climate alarm is losing steam, and crony energies increasingly face their de-subsidized day of market reackoning.


Appendix: Current Flavin Biography (Worldwatch Institute)

Christopher Flavin is President Emeritus of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based international research organization focused on energy, resource, and environmental issues. Flavin is a leading voice on the potential for new energy technologies and strategies to replace fossil fuels—increasing energy security and avoiding dangerous climate change. He is co-author of three books on energy, including Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution, which anticipated many of the changes now underway in world energy markets.

Flavin is a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and serves as a board member of the Climate Institute. He is on the Advisory Boards of the American Council on Renewable Energy and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. He has participated in several historic international conferences, including the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the Climate Change Conference in Kyoto Japan in 1997. He regularly provides strategy advice to government officials and business and NGO leaders around the globe.

Flavin is a regular co-author of the annual State of the World Report and speaks frequently to business, university, and policy audiences, testifies before national and state legislatures, and meets frequently with government and international leaders. Flavin has written for a range of popular and scholarly periodicals, including The New York Times, Technology Review, The Harvard International Review, and TIME Magazine. Flavin is a native of Monterey California and a cum laude graduate of Williams College, where he studied economics, biology, and environmental studies.

Leave a Reply