There has been an explosion of recent renewable energy projects that utilize wind turbines to convert wind enery to electrical energy. However, its popularity as a new source of energy is debatable.
The first discovery of a wind-driven wheel to power aa machine was proposed by Heron of Alexandria (ca. 10 – 70 A.D.), a Greek mathematician and engineer. He is representative of the Hellenistic scientific tradition. If we jump ahead to 1888, we find the first known wind turbine created for the specific use of electricity production. Its inventor, Charles Brush sought to generate electricity for use in his Ohio mansion.
The turbine stood 60 feet tall and weighed 80,000 pounds. It supplied 12kW of power to 350 incandescent lights, 2 arc lights and motors at the Brush mansion for 20 years. The vane to the left was used to aim the turbine blades directly into the wind. The dynamo rotated 50 times for each revolution of the turbine blades, charging a dozen batteries.
As a point of comparison, there is a person in the lower right hand corner of the photo pushing a lawnmower around the yard.
While there have been improvements to this first basic design over the subsequent thirteen decades, the basic technology hasn’t changed since Mr. Brush sought to harness renewable energy.
By 2014, over 240,000 commercial-sized wind turbines were operational on the planet. The term, “commercial-sized” has grown since the 20th century. In the 1980s the blade diameters grew to 56 feet. In the 1990s they grew to 164 feet. In the 2000s they grew to 328 feet. In the 2010s, they have exceeded 400 feet in diameter and continued to grow utilizing the inelegant theory that “bigger is better.” In fact, the current record for blade diameter is more that 650 feet.
While building machines of this size is no problem in science fiction movies where they are the product of Hollywood computer graphics, in today’s real world they pose larger problems with each increase in length and size. Imagine the logistical nightmare created by attempting to haul single 300 foot blade along a highway (the length of three football fields placed end-to-end).
In recent years, with the worldwide emphasis on climate change, many of these monsters are arranged in farms for the purposes of multiplying the electrical output produced. Unfortunately, one of the biproducts of arranging many turbines in a single field is turbulence. While the first turbines in the front row achieve their design efficiency, all those turbines behind the first row, lose efficiency because the turbulence that upsets the wind stream. Does the industry react by looking for a innovative new design? Not really! They now offer their turbine farm customers expensive software that will control the turbines to partially negate the inconvenient turbulence, and therefore improve the power generation by a whopping 2%.
In the meanwhile, the same activists who rightly are lobbying to preserve a clean environment, are now forced to to face the fact that their celebrated wind farms are killing thousands of eagles and other large migratory birds.
In a response not unlike our “bigger must be better” group, the U.S. government in 2016 instituted a regulation that allows wind turbine operators to substantially increase the number of bird kills, for the 50,000 turbines in the U.S., and thereby not violate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). According to the MBTA, it is illegal to kill any bird protected by the Act.
Perhaps it is finally time to consider the replacement of a technology that is more than a century old . . .