“The first great requisite of motive power is, that it shall be wholly at our command, to be exerted when, and where, and in what degree we desire. The wind, for instance, as a direct motive power, is wholly inapplicable to a system of machine labour, for during a calm season the whole business of the country would be thrown out of gear.”
The most important book written on energy economics was the first: William Stanley Jevons’s The Coal Question (London: Macmillan and Company, 1865, rev. 1866). This classic is available in its entirety on the Internet.
Jevons’s remarkably sophisticated treatment of energy sustainability remains pertinent today. In a real sense, the Biden approach to energy was refuted by the insight of W. S. Jevons more than 150 years ago.
This four-part series will continue this week with Waterpower, Biomass, and Geothermal; Coal; and Energy Efficiency.
Jevons makes four points regarding windpower.
1) windpower is not new
“When in 1708 windmills were wanted to try and drain certain Scotch coal-mines; John Young, the millwright of Montrose, was found to be the only man in the country who could erect windmills.” (p. 75)
2) windpower is intermittent and unsuitable for modern work
“The first great requisite of motive power is, that it shall be wholly at our command, to be exerted when, and where, and in what degree we desire. The wind, for instance, as a direct motive power, is wholly inapplicable to a system of machine labour, for during a calm season the whole business of the country would be thrown out of gear.” (p. 122)
“Before the era of steam-engines, windmills were tried for draining mines, ‘but, though they were powerful machines, they were very irregular, so that in a long tract of calm weather the mines were drowned, and all the workmen thrown idle. From this cause, the contingent expenses of these machines were very great; besides, they were only applicable in open and elevated situations’.” (p. 123)
“Civilization … is the economy of power, and consists in withdrawing and using our small fraction of force in a happy mode and moment.” (p. 122)
3) windpower is land constrained
“No possible concentration of windmills … would supply the force required in large factories or iron works. An ordinary windmill has the power of about thirty-four men, or at most seven horses. Many ordinary factories would therefore require ten windmills to drive them, and the great Dowlais Ironworks, employing a total engine power of 7,308 horses, would require no less than 1,000 large windmills!” (p. 123)
4) windpower for transportation unworkable
“Richard Lovell Edgeworth spent forty years’ labour in trying to bring wind carriages into use. But no ingenuity could prevent [wind carriages] from being uncertain; and their rapidity with a strong breeze was such, that … ‘they seemed to fly, rather than roll along the ground.’ Such rapidity not under full control must be in the highest degree dangerous.” (p. 126)
“A wind-wagon would undoubtedly be the cheapest kind of conveyance if it would always go the right way. Simon Stevin invented such a carriage, which carried twenty-eight persons, and is said to have gone seven leagues an hour.” (p. 125)
Modern analyses of electricity from industrial wind turbines acknowledge intermittency.