Energy: Is the Answer Blowing in the Wind?

by Dan Schafer

There was one thing Columbus didn’t have to worry about when he set out. Fuel for his ship. He didn’t even think about stocking up on it. He just planned on it being there – or when it wasn’t there just waited for it. Wind has been used to propel boats for virtually all of recorded history. It has been used as energy in other ways, too, for a long time. One of the landscape features of flat Holland that now almost amounts to a logo is the windmill. And though a different style, just 50 years ago windmills for pumping water were still standing on most Midwest American farms.

But is that old technology relevant in the age of the Internet and video conferencing? Well, most of modern technology uses electricity – and that is just what windmills are producing. Germany, Denmark, USA, Spain, and India all have over 1000 MW of electricity from wind power. Soon to join the 1000 MW club are the UK and Brazil. World wide, by the end of 2002 it is projected that 30,000 MW of electricity will be blown into houses and factories and computers by the wind. Denmark produces over 15% of its total electrical use by wind. [American Wind Energy Association]

Wind farms with rotors and alternators sitting atop 50-meter towers are springing up all over the globe. These are not home jigged airplane propellers connected to some generator out of a junked school bus. A typical 600 kW turbine has a 43-metre diameter rotor with blades specially designed in wind tunnels for efficiency and quietness. Even though the wind is free, with the generator and tower you are likely to be set back a half million dollars. By the time you get it installed you will have paid $1,000 for every kW of generating capacity. At that price you need to keep your wind mill spinning for 20 years to make your costs close to competitive with electricity from the grid. But that is what most of these turbines are designed for.

In regard to economics, oil, gas and coal can still make electricity cheaper on average than wind power because of the capital investment costs of wind turbines and variability in the strength of the wind. Why then is the number of wind turbine installations increasing every year? Normally businessmen are pretty hard headed and don’t back a losing horse just because they like his colour. In fact there are other practical business considerations that make investment in wind power viable. Most electric utilities are willing to buy electric power to feed into the grid because it makes good economic sense for them. It enables them to handle increasing demand from their customers without investing in additional production capacity. One of the big factors that tips the scale toward wind energy is government tax structures that encourage production and use of energy from renewable resources, because of the positive benefit to society at large of less pollution, less depletion of natural resources and less dependence on imported fuels. But having said this we should add that, in fact, such tax incentives are often only a neutralisation or partial neutralisation of tremendous subsidies that have been provided to electricity generation from fossil fuels for years at one stage or another.

If Denmark, the country that, in percentage terms, is doing the best only gets 15% of their electrical supply from the wind, is it likely that harnessing the wind will ever make a big impact on world energy production? Maybe we should first get an idea of what one of these 600 kW generators is doing. Say on a hot summer day you come home to an average sized house in Europe or America (or a really hot country like Thailand). Your air conditioner is on. Your lights are on. Of course your refrigerator is running. You take a hot shower so your electric water heater kicks in. The hot water kettle is on. Someone puts something in the microwave and both the TV and a computer are on. That evening you could be burning something like 10 –15 kW. So if there were 40 to 60 other houses devouring kilowatts like yours, one 600 kW windmill could take care of all of you. Maybe in percentage terms that is not a great number, but it is not a nothing. Especially if you consider that a country like Germany has 11,500 windmills whirring—most of them bigger than 600 kW.

Another economic benefit of wind power is the contribution to diversifying the ownership of the supply of energy. Many little people, especially in third world countries, suffer from the monopolistic power of, usually government owned, electric utilities. Because the large monopoly has no competition, they have little incentive for efficiency or good service.

Operating a factory here in Thailand, we know the wastage of resources, human and material, that comes from power outages. We also know the difficulties of getting good service and good pricing for the power we use. But were you to compare Thailand with many other countries in Asia and Africa, its power supply could be ranked excellent. So one can imagine the economic retardation that badly provided electrical power abets in many, already struggling, economies.

By its nature wind power is small business. Therefore it is accessible to entrepreneurs and small co-operatives. That means not only can power generation be located closer to power consumption, saving transmission loss and cost but it eventually puts pressure on big inefficient providers that will benefit everyone.

Is the answer then to our energy crunch blowing in the wind? I guess not even the most enthusiastic windmill advocate would claim wind power is the only source we need. But it is another example of a built in provision by the One who put this earth in its “just right” orbit around the sun. Its orbit and axis mean its oceans and land create “weather” that convert the sun’s energy to something we are able to use to develop His world in His way.

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