Windpower Is Not an Infant Industry!

By Robert Bradley Jr. on Master Resource 
October 13, 2009

“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.

 

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