Monday, June 18, 2012

A Love Letter toWindmills

Don Quixote and the Windmills, Salvador Dali, 1969
...As he was saying this, they caught sight of thirty or forty windmills standing on the plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire:

"Fortune is directing our affairs even better than we could have wished: for you can see over there, good friend Sancho Panza, a place where stand thirty or more monstrous giants with whom I intend to fight a battle and whose lives I intend to take; and with the booty we shall begin to prosper.  For this is a just war, and it is of great service to God to wipe such a wicked breed from the face of the earth."

An excerpt from The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote De La Mancha by Miguel Cervantes

People hate windmills. Not since the valiant Don Quixote first couched his lance, set spurs to his trusty steed Rocinante, and charged with the bravado only he could muster, have windmills been more feared and loathed. There is, as our hero noted, a war being waged against this ingenious machine.

Vertical Axis Windmill in Nishtafun, Iran. Photo by Caroline Mawer.

In use since antiquity, all windmills function under one simple principle - they are a device used to translate the raw power of the wind into rotational energy. The earliest windmills in widespread use were first observed in Persia in the 9th century, and were actually oriented horizontally. These machines had sails that rotated around a vertical axis and were used to either grind grain or pump water. Only later did they take on the iconic tower form that so tormented our poor heroic hidalgo from La Mancha.

In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, steam power replaced the brute force of wind and water as the primary source of generating energy.  Then, to add insult to injury, the rise of the petrochemical age - namely our old friends coal and oil - effectively pushed the traditional windmill to the fringe of the energy-generating landscape, rendering them little more than nostalgic contraptions and refurbished tourist attractions.  It was in this transition however, that the key benefit of the windmill was lost.  Like it's also-besieged cousin, solar energy, the main attraction of using wind to derive energy, was that the input was free, provided at no additional charge by mother nature. Expensive, non-renewable, extracted resources hate windmills.

Wind Farm at Altamont Pass, via World Watch Institute

But the windmill evolved.  The modern iteration of the windmill is the wind turbine, and like it's predecessor, it harnesses the naturally occurring force of the wind to generate power.  Only now, the wind turbine transcends traditional mechanical advantage of yore, and produces electricity.  Whereas the monstrous giants of Senior Quixote's vexation could only leverage their output locally, the electricity generated by the leviathans of today can be used immediately on site, stored in batteries, or fed back into a larger power grid system. A valuable step forward. Such gracious monsters.

Unfortunately, a wind turbine is still just a glorified windmill. And people hate windmills. Even Donald Trump hates windmills.  In early 2012, Trump was the main attraction in a 500 person protest against a planned wind farm in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland.  Said Trump in his rousing statement: "Tragically the Scottish taxpayer no longer has a voice in this destructive process because the First Minister and his government are ramming these proposals through the planning system at lightning speed, even though the rest of the world already knows that they produce a totally unreliable and very expensive form of power."  It should also be noted that the wind farm, once complete, would be visible from his newly constructed coastal golf course.

But these protests are not just confined to the elite. It is a common occurrence now for citizen groups to band together to stop wind farms from being constructed in their communities.  They do so under the auspices of wind turbines being a visual and auditory nuisance.  Jane Jacobs and her NIMBY followers would be proud. But it is here where we must disagree with a very disagreeable Mrs. Jacobs - if not in my backyard, then where? 

Protesters in West Cork County Ireland.

To be fair, wind turbines are not a magic bullet. They will not single-handedly solve the energy crisis.  They will not ween a state off of foreign energy dependence.  In fact, there is ample evidence on either side to both prove and disprove the ejaculations of Mr. Trump and his band of merry protesters. Some people may find them ugly.  They may make noise.  They may even kill a few birds (although nowhere near as many as large expanses of glass on tall buildings do…).  But all of these studies are missing the point.  Windmills (and wind turbines and wind pumps and wind chargers) are a proven link to our past technological triumphs and directly tied to our continued success in the future.  The benefits of generating energy from naturally-occurring, renewable sources cannot be understated if we have any desire to sustain our rapidly growing population and simultaneously protect the planet we live on.  If we halt the evolution of windmills because they are ugly, because they are loud, because they are imperfect, then they will fall as monsters, ugly, loud, and imperfect.

"…For God's sake!" said Sancho Panza. "Didn't I tell you to be careful what you were doing, didn't I tell you they were only windmills?  And only someone with windmills on the brain could have failed to see that!"