Wind: The Power Potential of a Blast From the Past

by Bill Chameides | June 30th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 4 comments

On vacation last week sailing a 40-foot boat around Martha’s Vineyard, I stepped back into the past. No Treo meant no phone, no e-mail, and no news. I returned to a pile of New York Times and Wall Street Journals with stories of more floods in the Midwest, searing heat and wildfires in California, and a shrinking polar ice cap. Time to jump back into it all? Not quite. Let me savor the week a little longer and return to the wind.

The Age of Sail

There was a time when wind was king. From the 1500s to the 1800s, sometimes referred to as the “Age of Sail,” sailing ships ruled the high seas, driving trade, world exploration, and the settling of new worlds. In the late 1800s, with the arrival of ships powered by fossil fuels like the coal-fired steamship, this age quietly exited the world stage.

Perhaps because of its connection to an earlier, less mechanized time, sailing has a particular appeal and charm. The absence of engine hum is peaceful. The boat puts you at the mercy of the elements. No wind, no go. Too much wind, uh oh. Wind in the wrong direction, very slow go.

Pulling into the various harbors along the way, one gets a glimpse of another way of life that is increasingly under pressure. The fishing village with its rusting hulled boats and huge fishing nets illustrates changing times. Fresh fish are still sold at bargain prices, but because of the skyrocketing cost of propane, we were not able to get anyone to cook our lobster for us.

The New Wind Age

If you search online for “wind energy,” you’re unlikely to get any hits for the “age of sail,” but you will get lots of links to the new age of wind energy. There is a growing recognition that fossil-fuel energy isn’t that great after all, and that maybe renewable energy — like that from wind — will help power our future. By now, scientists know that the world’s winds could supply more than 15 times current world energy demand.  In the United States, we already have the wherewithal and the infrastructure to supply about 20 percent of our electrical needs with wind energy.

So what’s stopping us? For one, a failure on the part of Congress to put a price on carbon. For another — and one I discovered to my dismay when poring over last week’s newspapers — Congress has still not passed an extension of the renewable energy tax credit.


The New Meets the Old

Regardless of Congress, time marches on and an old salt is usually quick to recognize a good idea when she or he sees one. My trip easily demonstrated the natural progression from the old Age of the Sail to a “New Wind Age.” I saw numerous sailboats with small wind turbines spinning in the breeze, charging up batteries. Others use propellers connected to the hull to charge batteries while the ship is under sail. Solar cells, no doubt, are next.

Wind Policy — Stuck in Irons?

Some say that the biggest negative for wind energy is intermittency. Whether on the high seas or ashore, we’ve all experienced a doldrum now and then (see the U.S. government’s wind map for the country’s windiest areas). But given our present infrastructure and what we have learned in the past few years, we could manage intermittency problems as long as the total is not more than 20 percent. And with emerging energy storage technologies — a future subject for the Green Grok — the potential for wind and other renewables is unlimited.

For now, back on land and feeling the late June heat, I sure could use a cool draft coming through my window.

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  1. anon
    Jun 30, 2008

    What’s stopping us, you ask? Given your trip to Martha’s Vineyard, I’m surprised you made no mention of the Cape Wind project and all the obstacles created by NIMBY elitism and Sen. Ted Kennedy, who just happens to own a home in sight of the proposed wind farm. Preaching conservation and green living is easy, until you’re forced to confront the hard reality yourself. ” title=”wind

    • Erica Rowell
      Jun 30, 2008

      Dr. Bill Chameides responds – Anon: I gather that you are upset about the obstacles put in the way of the Cape Wind Project. I think that there can be valid reasons for opposing some wind projects, and I certainly don’t have a sufficient understanding of the motives of the opponents of the Cape project to accuse them of elitism, but I do think that the opponents of this specific project got it wrong. What do others think?” title=”wind projects

      • Peter Griffith
        Jul 1, 2008

        I too will refrain from guessing motives, but do think the Cape is suitable location for a wind farm, given the inadequacies of power distribution. We’d be better off with a continental-scale electric grid, so that even better locations out West could deliver electrical power to the East. Lacking that, we’re going to need to build wind farms in locations like the Cape.” title=”classic nimby

        • Erica Rowell
          Jul 1, 2008

          Dr. Bill Chameides responds – Peter: The point about the need to upgrade the electric grid is very well taken. To better integrate renewables like wind, we are going to need a much “smarter” electic grid. One that can anticipate changes in power production in one region and then compensate with excess power from another. Again, a topic for a future Green Grok post. ” title=”‘Smarter’ electric grid needed

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