Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather - Marq de Villiers (2006)
Chapter 8. The Technology of Wind
Ivan's story: In the end, Ivan's eyewall just barely brushed the Cuban mainland, most of its central circulation staying offshore. It had taken yet another unexpected westward jog before turning north. The high-pressure ridge was proving more persistent than forecast, its weakness not as apparent. Nevertheless, with hurricane winds extending outwards go miles from the eye, and tropical storm winds 173 miles from the core, Ivan was a large storm and Cuba did not escape entirely. Pictures taken on a helicopter flightover the region a day later showed extensive damage to the popular scuba diving resort of Maria la Gorda, a favorite winter-time destination for paleskins from Canada, where several buildings had lost roofs and palm trees had been uprooted and scattered. Elsewhere, there was flooding and a small bridge and some roads were under water. There were no deaths or injuries to add to Ivan's fatality count, so far, of 68 (3g in Grenada, 18 in Jamaica, 4 in the Dominican Republic, 3 in Venezuela, 2 in the Cayman Islands, 1 in Tobago, 1 in Barbados). That this was a triumph of communist planning the tame Cuban media, for their part, had no doubts, though the news reports did mention both luck and the high-pressure ridge over which they professed no controls.
Ivan threaded its way through the Yucatan channel, and roared into the Gulf.
From a human perspective, this was about as benign a course as could have been hoped. A jog either way would have produced a death toll much higher.
The National Hurricane Center bulletin issued on Monday, September 13, predicted uclose to 20 knots of westerly shear affecting Ivan but relaxes this shear a bit at 24 hours and 36 hours before increasing it significantly." As a result, the intensity forecast showed a gradual weakening.
The track forecast was still for a turn northward, and after seventy-two hours turning due north or even northeast as Ivan approached the prevailing westerlies, which had regained their stability as Frances expired in the Atlantic. That would still take it through the western fringes of the Florida Panhandle, through northern Georgia, and into North Carolina, though by then it was fully expected to have subsided to a tropical storm and then back into a mere depression—lots of water, not much wind damage.
The big question was—where would it hit the U.S. mainland first?
The Florida and Alabama emergency measures organizations wearily cranked up their evacuation procedures once again. There was the usual run on bottled water, portable generators, and sheets of three-quarter-inch plywood.
I had friends in New Orleans who were booking hotel rooms in Houston, just in case. New Orleans is a few feet below sea level, protected only by the fragile levees built to contain the Mississippi. The city hadn't had a direct hit from a Category 4 hurricane in living memory, never mind a Category 3—not, that is, until Katrina in 2003, which was a strong Category 4.
The technology exists to construct buildings capable of withstanding such hurricanes. But how do you rebuild—retrofit—New Orleans?
The Canadian Hurricane Centre in Dartmouth had been tracking the storm but had seen no need to issue public bulletins, either as warning or as reassurance. They were keeping on eye on Ivan, though. Hurricanes had done strange things before, and no doubt would again.
At five A.M. Eastern time on Tuesday September 14, Ivan had sustained winds of 160 miles an hour, once again making it a Category 3, but a Hurricane Hunters reconnaissance plane that penetrated the eye an hour earlier had measured a pressure of g24 millibars, slightly higher than before. The pilots reported that the eye was well defined with very cold convective tops, but Ivan was nevertheless expected to weaken before hitting the coast. The track forecast, hedged about with cautions as it was, nevertheless showed the landfall now missing Florida and coming ashore on the tiny stretch of Gulf coast owned by Alabama. New Orleans was still watchful—and my friends had indeed locked their apartments and decamped for Houston, laptops in hand. The resorts along the Mississippi coast were shutting down as their customers fled.
By the following morning, with Ivan still twenty-four hours from landfall on the U.S. mainland, the National Hurricane Center was issuing bulletins every few hours. At five A.M. the wind strength was 140 miles an hour, making it a Category 4, but nearing the category's lower threshold. All the models now agreed on the track—it was going to hit Alabama overnight or on Thursday morning. Satellite images showed the center was weakening, and pressure was up to g33 millibars.
A new note of caution was introduced at this time—once Ivan crossed over the coast, its steering currents were expected to collapse, and the storm could either stall entirely or wander erratically to the southern Appalachians, giving up its huge amounts of Caribbean and Gulf water in torrential downpours, with the consequent risk of flooding. The warning arc was extended inland—because of the storm's size and intensity, it was likely to still be a hurricane up to twelve hours after landfall, about 120 miles inland. That possibility—and the erratic wandering expected—caught the attention of weather people all along the eastern seaboard, all the way up to Dartmouth, where their scrutiny of the storm intensified.
In the hours before its landfall on the U.S. mainland, Ivan was once again penetrated by pilots from the Hurricane Hunters squadron. They reported that the southwestern quadrant of the eyewall had all but disappeared. Ivan was finally losing its potency.
But it was too late for the Alabama coast and its barrier islands. And it was too late for the Florida Panhandle, which once again, for the third time in a month, was battered by high winds and torrential rain.
Ivan was still generating winds of 130 miles an hour as it crossed the coast at two A.M. That made it a strong Category 3, just under the Category 4 threshold.
The northeastern Gulf landscape is flat; the communities of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, which were in the center of the eye as it came ashore, are both low-lying, their protective dunes only a few yards high, much too small to fend off Ivan's twenty-foot storm surge. The sea either brushed the dunes aside and crashed into the houses and marinas beyond, battering them away, or pushed whole dunes into the communities, swamping them in a swirling miasma of sand and salt water. The Interstate 10 bridge near Pensacola collapsed at the height of the storm; dozens of small boats secured in their marinas were dashed half a mile inland; the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo was destroyed, and among the animals flooded out of their homes was Chucky, a one-thousand-pound alligator, and eight of his friends. Two suburban swimming pools were found floating on the highway near Gulf Shores.
By the morning of September 16, 26 more people had died, 13 of them in Florida. More than a million people were without power in eight states. (Later it was estimated that another31 deaths were "indirectly" attributable to Ivan, including 6 in Canada, bringing the monster's death count to 123, and Ivan had spawned no fewer than 111 tornadoes acrossfive states, destroying thousands of homes.)
By the afternoon of the 17th, the last workday before the weekend, Ivan had—finally—dropped below hurricane strength and had been reclassified as a tropical storm, and then downgraded further to a tropical depression. But it continued to spin off tornadoes and thundercells, not so very different from those that were at its core almost three weeks earlier, all those thousands of miles away in the Sahara. Nine inches of rain dropped on Georgia, causing widespread flooding. In middle Tennessee, several communities were hit by winds of almost hurricane strength, downing trees and power lines. Highways near Lawrence burg were closed. In West Virginia, more than twenty-two counties qualified for federal disaster relief funds. Eight inches of rain fell across central Pennsylvania, and those residents who had managed to sleep found when they woke up that radio and TV stations were off the air, and hundreds of homes and cars were underwater. The village of Spring Mills was two or three feet under water. Dozens of rivers were between four and six feet above normal. (Many of the news reports, curiously, seemed more concerned that Schnitzel's Tavern in Bellefonte was under water. To outsiders this seemed a low-grade emergency, but no doubt Pennsylvanians believed differently.) Most of the Delaware River basin got half a dozen inches of rain in a few hours; the river and its tributaries, especially in the Catskill and Poconos mountains, swelled and overflowed. The main-stem Delaware river at Trenton, New Jersey, was at 2g8 percent of normal, the highest levels since the state got hit by back-to-back hurricanes in ig33. Several basin counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York were declared federal disaster areas, and also qualified for relief funds.
Over their long history, humans have learned to use the wind in two primary ways, for transportation (sailing) and for supplementing their own musculature (that is, for driving machinery), and have learned from the wind (or other creatures that use the wind) another by-now-indispensable technique: the art of flying.
But sailing has become a game, in modern times a trick for children or a diversion for wealthy adults. As for flying, we are in the air more than ever—but as much against or despite the wind as with it or for it. And for using the power of the wind? Windmills have come, have gone, and are once again beginning to fill our landscapes, albeit in different iterations and guises.
Many other creatures, with a history far longer than ours, have also learned to use the wind, often in astonishingly subtle and complex, if rather limited, ways. In the course of doing so, they utilized, in passing as it were, some of our most cherished technologies long before we did—indeed, long before we existed. Not just flight, but navigation devices, echolocation, the barometer, the technique of sailing, the playful games of parasailing, parachuting, and gliding. They invented techniques for extracting scarce moisture from the air: In Namibia's Skeleton Coast, one of the most arid places on earth, a fog-collecting beetle uses the wind to condense moisture into little runnels on its wings, which it then funnels into its mouth. Termites "invented" air-conditioning. Some mammals have learned to imitate the insects—the Saharan jerboa, a burrowing animal, uses ventilation channels to move air through the warren and cleanse it.
There is more to life in the lower atmosphere than birds. Much, much more life, a riotous carnival crowd of life … The air in the first thousand yards or so off the ground is filled with a dense crowd of wind-blown pollens and fungal spores, as well as myriad insects and the birds that devour them; at some estimates, the air above grasslands in temperate zones can carry almost a million insects, or at least organisms of one kind or another, per square mile at any one time.1
The earliest creatures to learn to use the wind were the plants. Spores and fungi, which are ancient even by plant standards, depend on the winds for their movements and their propagation. All orchids, which are really just host colonies to fungi, still use wind to propagate; in some species a single flower can produce four million seeds, capable of surviving wind-borne trips of up to 1,800 miles. Other stay-at-home blooms, including some orchids, collect their nutrients from afar: I've already remarked on a species of orchid growing in the rain forest canopy of the Amazon that depends on African dust for a large share of its nutrients. And allergenic plants such as dandelion, ragweed, and goldenrod cause outbursts of sniffling in the spring, as their pollen is carried on the winds.
Many large plants use the winds to disperse seeds. Canada's national tree, the maple, spreads its seeds on little winged husks, which will carry long distances in a small breeze. Conifers spread their pollen in the winds. Whole plants, too, use the winds. The tumble-weeds of arid areas are entirely wind-dependent for their travel; one of our coaches at school used to make us chase tumbleweeds across the dusty plains in the Orange Free State, the better to get us fit for the hockey season (well, it beat doing laps).
Winds can bring alien invasions as well as benefits—see those soy-eating fungi invading Arkansas from South America. In Cape Town, one of the windiest places on the planet, agronomists imported the Port Jackson willow from Australia in a vain attempt to anchor the sands of the so-called Cape Flats, which were threatening to blow away and turn Cape Town proper into an island. It spread rapidly in the winds, and is now a threat to native species; my sister is one of thousands of Capetonians who turn out in organized "hacks" to root out this and other aliens. As Jan DeBlieu points out, Hurricane Andrew in 1993 knocked down so many native trees in Florida it helped the spread of four alien imports: melaleuca, Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, and marlberry2
Insects, too, have worked out dozens of ways of using the winds. Some of them do it by simply getting aloft and being blown along. In 2004, locusts invaded Egypt again, just as they did in biblical times, using the prevailing winds to do so. Many otherwise wingless insects do the same. At sea, certain microorganisms are thrown into the air by wave action, and are carried enormous distances on the winds in aerosols.
Other insects have learned to use wind in more indirect ways. That spiders can employ wind to cross fairly long distances between trees, dangling themselves on the end of a long rope of silk, is commonplace, and can be seen in pretty well any backyard. But entomologists have also identified some species of spiders that can build simple sails from their silk to lift themselves into the air. To some degree they can control their flight by lengthening or shortening the threads they produce.3
One autumn morning, after yet another gale had passed, I sat with a coffee in the atrium of our house watching the gulls circling high overhead. Angry clouds were still scudding by and the winds were still strong, but the storm center was safely to our northeast and the mood was more relaxed. The gulls, it seemed to me, were also relaxed, playful after the storm.
This is a bit of a thorny issue, this business of a bird's playfulness. Ornithologists deride the notion and fishermen, who are used to gulls flocking about when they are cutting bait, say the birds are only looking for food, but I don't believe them. As I watched, five or six gulls would ride the wind, deftly matching the lift of their wings to the strength of the gusts, and were able to remain absolutely stationary in the air over the beach, sometimes for minutes at a time. Then one or another would peel off, dive downwind, and come back up again, to resume its place with the others, motionless in the wind. Never once did I see them dive down for food, or even seem to be looking for something. Perhaps there is some obscure Darwinian purpose to all this. Perhaps they are merely airing out their feathers. Perhaps they are proving to potential mates what terrific fliers they are, but it still looks like playing to me. Why not? If natural selection has given them these superb wings, what is so outre about the notion that they are actually enjoying that with which they are blessed? Indeed, the ornithological orthodoxy seems to me unnecessarily dour.
In the summer you can see the ravens playing in the winds too. A raven will balance, motionless, on an updraft, until, with a subtle change of windspeed or just a decision made inside its dark skull, it will shift its wings to ride an invisible crest of air at great speed. As British nature writer Paul Evans puts it, "the most dramatic displays are when a raven launches through the wind, rolls, flips over and back, then fans out the wings and tail in a mighty swish to soar away with great insouciance."4 Near our house the ravens soar, clasp talons with a fellow, and then … tumble, in a raven game of chicken, to see which bird will unclutch the other first before risking being dashed against the earth. Again, I suppose it is plausible that they are merely demonstrating bravado in a kind of dominance ritual dictated by natural selection and the need to impress girl ravens and therefore sire young, but perhaps this (imagining them as grotesquely competitive as humans) is the anthropomorphizing, and not the playfulness.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it is certainly a fact that birds— and insects too—have learned over the long millennia of evolution to live in the wind in a way that humans cannot, to live in it, understand it, and use it, as transportation, a source of food, as a locus for sexual adventure, and even for foretelling, since many birds seem able to predict the weather from the winds. Indeed, some birds spend most of their lives in the air; albatrosses, for example, seldom land; a new study in 2004 found that albatrosses routinely circumnavigate the globe twice in a season, even sleeping in the air, maintaining themselves aloft with some sort of natural autopilot. They only come down to feed.
Still, none of these astonishments has attracted the human imagination more than the apparently effortless way birds take to the air—pace our thoughts on those gulls hanging motionless in the breezes on the shore, or the way the great raptors use updraft thermals (anabatic wind systems) to gain altitude without expending any energy.
It looks so easy.
The gulls I had been watching disappeared by late morning. Not necessarily because they were tired of the game, but a couple of them had spotted one of our lobsterman neighbors rebaiting out on the bay, and were circling overhead waiting to see what could be gained. Typically, for gulls have superb eyesight, within minutes a dozen or more appeared, flapping vigorously upwind, from where they had been sitting on the rocks out on Coffin Island. They took up station over the boat, like patrol aircraft on security duty, cruising in lazily effortless circles.
Flapping, circling, cruising, diving, landing, all part of their native technique, all come to them hardwired into the genes. The naive view of how birds fly, the common-sense view that still feels right to me, in some stubborn corner of my mind that is resistant to apparently overcomplicated science, is simply that the flapping of their wings somehow pushes the air down, and therefore them up. I knew that aircraft didn't flap their wings, though not for lack of trying among early inventors of ornithopters and other curious vehicles, but I just figured they worked in the same way that your hand is pushed upward when you hang it out a car window at speed and angle it just slightly into the wind. The wind has force, we know that from … well, from wind, the force of wind on trees and other objects.
The reality is more complex. If you examine a bird's wing in cross-section, it is generally flattish on the bottom and curved on the upper surface; the curvature is more pronounced in some birds than others, but it is always there, at least among those birds who still use their wings for flying, unlike ostriches, or the late-lamented dodo. That curvature, it turns out, is critical. The reason for it was worked out as long ago as the eighteenth century by Dutch-born mathematical physicist Daniel Bernoulli, although he didn't apply it to flight. He was concerned with more prosaic matters, like water pressure.
Bernoulli and Blaise Pascal pretty well invented the science of fluid mechanics—and hence the study of laminar and turbulent flow, and hence aerodynamics. Bernoulli's principle, which sounds deceptively simple, was that the pressure exerted by a moving fluid (water, or air) is a function of the speed at which the fluid is moving. This is the familiar garden hose effect that was noted in the discussion on wind force; the pressure of the same volume of water through a hose will vary depending on the diameter of the pipe—the nozzle, if you like. So if air is flowing faster on one side of an object than on the other, the faster flow will cause reduced pressure in that area, and consequently the slower side (high pressure) will be pushed toward the faster side (low pressure). Bernoulli's principle explains a good many humble phenomena. For example, it explains why a shower curtain is sucked in against the showerer—the flow of the water from the shower head decreases the pressure inside the curtain. A curveball in baseball depends on Bernoulli's principle too. The spin imparted by the pitcher causes air to move more rapidly on one side of the ball than on the other, increasing the pressure on one side, with the net effect of pushing the ball off course. Once aloft, birds obtain lift in exactly the same way. Air flows over the curved upper surface of the wing more rapidly than it does over the flatter lower surface; as per Bernoulli, the more rapid flow of air above the wing results in decreased pressure there, allowing the normal pressure beneath the wind to push upward. Birds, like planes, fly by being pushed upward by air pressure.5 They don't lift, they are pushed.
Bernoulli's principle, showing how air flowing faster over a curved surface creates lower pressure, and therefore lift. When the angle of attack is severe, cavitation is caused behind the upper surface, which exaggerates the lift force and can cause a wing to "flip."
Bird wings are rather more complicated than simple aircraft wings, which is not so surprising, given they have developed over many millennia of trial-and-error flying. Also not surprisingly— since birds probably developed from flying dinosaurs, and flying dinosaurs developed from quadrupeds—wings are really vestigial arms. Or, looked at from an avian point of view, not so much vestigial as more highly developed arms. As a consequence, bird wings, unlike those of insects or of aircraft, consist of two quite separate parts: an arm wing and a hand wing.
It is the arm wing, the part closest to the body, that yields up the conventional aerodynamic profile—a rounded leading edge, and a curved upper surface. In birds that fly long distances like albatross, the arm wing tends to dominate because the profile provides high lift and very little drag at fairly high speeds. But in small, agile birds, the hand wing plays the dominant role. And no birds are more agile in the air than the nimble swifts, little birds with swept-back wings that hunt insects and catch them in flight. Of all birds, swifts can turn on a dime, brake more sharply without stalling, and accelerate more quickly. How do they do it?
By contrast with its arm wing, the leading edge of a swift's hand wing is sharp, nothing more than the narrow vane of the outermost primary feathers. A group of Dutch biologists decided to check out how the hand wing works, using what they called "digital particle image velocimetry," not in a wind tunnel but in a water tunnel. Apparently the swifts wouldn't cooperate by flitting about a conventional wind tunnel in a straight line, so the Dutch scientists built an artificial swift wing instead. The results surprised them.
Earlier studies of insect wings had discovered that some creatures, masters as they were of the unconventional lift (remember the old saw about it being physically impossible for a bumblebee to fly?) generated what were called leading-edge vortexes, which greatly exaggerated the upward push of the flowing air during both flapping and gliding. A leading-edge vortex forms when the so-called angle of attack, the angle between the wing and the incoming air, is fairly large. The air flow then separates from the wing at the leading edge, and rolls up into a vortex. To facilitate vortex formation at lower angles of attack, the wing needs a sharp edge. To exploit the vortex, to use it to get lift, the insect or bird must keep this rolled-up vortex close to the wing. Insects typically do this by very rapid wing movement. Swifts do it by sweeping back the angle of the hand wings, almost to a V shape. As a consequence, the leading-edge vortex, or LEV, spirals out toward the tip of the wing, looking for all the world like a tiny tornado. And as with real tornadoes, the air pressure at the core of the vortex is very low, sucking the air beneath the wing upward, giving extraordinary lift. These vortexes are also remarkably stable at both low and high angles of attack—insects generally need an angle of about 25 to 40 degrees, but swifts can operate successfully at angles as low as 5 degrees. This gives them the speed to accompany their agility, and the ability to catch quickly flitting insects. Swifts change the sweep angle of their wings in flight, thus changing the angle of attack of the air flow. They use low angles for speeds, high angles to brake in midair—it gives them lots of drag, but the vortex keeps them from stalling and losing height. Aerospace engineers have copied the principle for certain military aircraft, which must be highly maneuverable and perform well at both subsonic and supersonic speeds; pilots of the newer fighter jets, such as the Tornado, can choose different sweep angles for agility or for cruising speed.
The next challenge, the Dutch scientists say, is to learn more about how swifts use their variable wing sweep to directly control the leading-edge vortexes to increase their flight performance. "The swift's flight control might inspire a new generation of engineers to develop morphing microrobotic vehicles that can fly with the agility, efficiency, and short take-off and landing capabilities of insects and birds."6
If course, this isn't the first time humans have learned from birds—or, in the early days, attempted to learn from birds. Icarus is a notorious example, though he is now remembered mostly for his hubris rather than his flight-control technology. Dreamers from Roger Bacon through Leonardo da Vinci have sketched vehicles that somehow mimicked birds, some of which would no doubt have worked if the engineering skills to make them had existed and if the knotty problem of takeoff had been solved. Takeoff was always the most difficult issue. The early inventors solved it by the simple but rather hazardous expedient of hurling the winged one over a cliff.
Leonardo's sketchbooks show many gliding devices, most of them winglike objects strapped to a human body, looking curiously like modern hang gliders. In this as in many other things, Leonardo was precocious, and not much progress was made for another four hundred years or so. In the early nineteenth century George Cayley designed and built the first true glider, a small biplane made of cloth sails with a horizontal tail and two lateral fins. One of his designs carried a man about 900 feet.7 All through the nineteenth century the occasional dreamer attached wings to his body and leapt off a building, and occasionally survived; but hang gliding as a sport had to wait until the twentieth century, when NASA engineer Francis Rogallo and his wife built a wind tunnel in their home to develop a personal flying device consisting of a delta-winged sail controlled by ropes. Since then, activities using personal wind-powered devices have proliferated. On the ground, they include soft-winged sail-boards and rigid-winged kitewings (which can reach 24 miles an hour in good conditions), kite surfing, skate sailing, and ice sailing. In the air, parasailing, hang gliding, and wingsailing.
The Chinese were early experimenters with flying techniques. That they invented kites a long time ago, probably before the fifth century B.C., we know because philosopher Mo Zi, who lived between 478 and 392 B.C., made a wooden kite in the shape of a hawk that flew for a whole day. Some reports, dating back much earlier than that, indicate that the Chinese used umbrella-like devices to jump off towers or high mounds. But the first modern parachute descent was in 1783, by French physicist Louis-Sebastien Lenormand, who hurled himself off the tower of Montpellier Observatory and drifted safely to ground. Two years later Jean Pierre Blanchard ascended on high in his balloon, attached a parachute to his dog, and dropped it from several hundred yards. The dog landed safely but was said to have run away and was never seen again.
It was the gliding flight of storks, slow and stately birds, that inspired the first aircraft designs of Otto Lilienthal in the late nineteenth century. Lilienthal, who was one of the inspirations for the Wright brothers, built what he called a sailing apparatus very like the outspread pinions of a soaring bird. "It consists," his notes say, "of a wooden frame covered with shirting (cotton-twill). The frame is taken hold of by the hands, the arms resting between cushions, thus supporting the body. The legs remain free for running and jumping. The steering in the air is brought about by changing the center of gravity. This apparatus I had constructed with supporting surfaces of ten to twenty square meters. The larger sailing surfaces move in an incline of one to eight, so that one is enabled to fly eight times as far as the starting hill is high."
A flight of Otto Lilienthal
Lilienthal's reputation as a respectable scientist at last pushed experimentation with flight beyond the province of dreamers and fools. Over a span of five years he developed eighteen models of gliders, fifteen of them monoplanes and three biplanes. Each was essentially a hang glider, controlled by the pilot shifting his weight. "To invent an airplane is nothing," he once famously said. "To build one is something. But to fly is everything." To facilitate his flights, he built a conical hill in his backyard at Lichterfelde, near Berlin, so he could launch his gliders into the wind no matter which direction it was coming from. Alas, he was a victim of his own experiments, and he died after a crash of one of his hang gliders on August 10, 1896.8
After the Wright brothers, as we know, aviation developed at an extraordinary pace. By 1908, maybe ten people in all the world had been in an airplane. Four years later, literally thousands had flown. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were some eight thousand commercial flights aloft at any one time somewhere on the planet, carrying maybe a million people.
We're still learning from birds too. U.S. engineers are planning an aircraft called the Pelican, which is based on the way that those slow-flying and often low-flying birds exploit what is called the ground effect—a curious phenomenon in which close proximity to the earth's surface actually reduces in-flight drag, and increases the upward efficiency of the wing. The Pelican aircraft would be huge—on the drawing board is a version four hundred feet long, with a five-hundred-foot wingspan and a cargo capacity of around ten Boeing 747s. It would fly at a stately 250 miles an hour at an altitude of no more than twenty feet—the first major commercial airplane to have to keep a close eye out for icebergs.9
A few days after the autumn 2004 storm had passed, we went down to the wharf in the little village of West Berlin to pick up some lobsters from one of our neighbors, Bob Lohnes. The whole fleet was in, all four boats—the West Berlin flotilla is not exactly a threat to global fish stocks. They were all pretty similar, Cape Islanders, a roofed cuddy amidships, an open deck for stacking the metal wire lobster pots, crates for the lobsters themselves, a winch for hauling the pots. The motors were sturdy diesels with a throaty sound; the old one-lungers of the East Coast, with their open spark you could light a cigarette from, have long since retired, nor do modern fishermen any longer shoehorn old Chrysler truck engines into their hulls for motive power. The Cape Islanders are small boats, but very sturdy, maneuverable, and stable even in rough seas, perfectly tuned for the job they are designed to do.
For our purposes, though, the most notable thing about them was the absence of sail. None of them carried any canvas except sometimes a tiny "staysail," used only to keep them into the wind while hauling traps. GPS systems, radars, range finders, echolocaters, cell phone chargers, yes, but no sails. There was no longer any point to sails.
I looked across Blueberry Bay. It was empty except for the sprightly colored buoys that marked where the lobster pots were. Farther out there was a coast guard vessel with a red-striped hull. Otherwise … nothing.
In summer it is different. A small marina has been built to the west, in the town of Liverpool, and on summer afternoons little triangular scraps of white bob perkily out from the Mersey River and head across the bay, perhaps bound for Lunenburg or Chester. Less frequently, and usually in the fall, slightly larger triangles appear to the east and head across the horizon, larger yachts, some of them heading for Bermuda and points south. Rich peoples' boats; a whole subculture of self-described "yacht bums" travels up and down the eastern seaboard, making a living of sorts crewing other people's boats to exotic ports. But none of this is any longer necessary. None of it is "commerce." Instead, it is all recreation. Many of the people who sail these little boats are very skilled, but their skill is employed for its own sake, in no cause and to no real purpose. In the old days sailing wasn't fun, something you did after work. Sailing was work. It was the lifeblood of world commerce, and wind was the oil of the time, the motor that drove the engine of global trades. And of course it was free, and lasted forever, the earth as a perpetual motion machine.
All gone now.
But the age of sail, which started the age of globalization, lasted for many millennia, much longer than the upstart machine age that has succeeded it.
Sailing probably began along the Nile, or possibly on the Euphrates delta of old Mesopotamia, or the Middle Kingdom of the Han. The oldest extant pictures of sailing boats are from the pharaonic cultures of Egypt, dating back some four thousand years. The civilized world's first known shipwreck is depicted on a stela at Karnak, dating from the second millennium B.C. Boats eerily like it are still visible plying the river only hours from Cairo. On modern Lake Nasser, formed by the Aswan High Dam, the feluccas ply the waters as they have done on the "Longest River" for forty centuries. Higher up the Nile, at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, they are called tank was. They are made of papyrus, and except for their lateen sails are identical in style to the boats depicted on the frescoes at Luxor and Karnak. You can sit by the Nile at Aswan and if you are lucky, you may see the feluccas drifting by in the light of a blood red moon. The Pharaohs pushed their empire steadily south passing Abu Simbel and Dongola and the Second Cataract, as early as 2300 B.C., conquering the settled kingdoms they found there, and by 2000 B.C. Nubia was under Egyptian control. The gold trade increased and with the gold came wealth, and commerce on the river increased. By the second millennium B.C. boats were coming down from Meroe and Kush, as high as the Fourth Cataract, carrying trade goods, livestock, and piles of what look like lumber in the frescoes. They already carried square-rigged sails amidships.
By Homer's time, sails were ubiquitous in the Mediterranean world, and traders were fetching cargoes from Africa and the Levant. The most sophisticated sailors of early history were the Phoenicians; it was their skills with sail that earned them their dominance of the western seas. Some evidence suggests that the Phoenicians made their way into the Red Sea and thence as far down the coast as Zanzibar. They certainly rounded the bulge of Morocco into the Atlantic, and by some reports made a circumnavigation of Africa a thousand years before Vasco da Gama left his markers on the shore in Table Bay, in what is now Cape Town.
Sailors used the prevailing winds, and the rivers of the sea, the ocean currents, to get around. They could only sail downwind, and either had to row back or to catch another wind somewhere else, and a further one to take them home. In the Mediterranean, a map of the prevailing winds soon appeared. Arab sailors used the monsoons to take them to India and the more southerly easterlies to bring them back. The Chinese used the currents and the prevailing winds to thread their way through the islands and isthmuses of southern Asia, and across the Indian Ocean to Sofala, then the Swahili-dominated portal to the ancient African empire of Zimbabwe. The lateen sail, a curious triangular thing on a movable boom, was developed somewhere in the Far East, made its way through the Middle East by way of Arab traders, and finally appeared on Roman ships a few decades before Christ. This made vessels much more maneuverable, and less dependent on the direction the winds blew. Even so, you couldn't sail into the wind, or even close to it. You wouldn't be able to do that for another thousand years at least.
The history of exploration is the history of sail and therefore of wind exploitation. The Norse knorr and its successors the cog and the carrack and the caravel made global exploration possible. We know the Norse reached Newfoundland by around A.D. iooo; Basque and Portuguese fishermen were not far behind. The Norse used the subpolar easterlies to head for America, and the midlatitude westerlies to get back, at least until the mini ice age, when the polar seas filled with ice, and transatlantic voyages perforce had to wait for Columbus, who would use the tropical trade winds for his crossing. The Chinese developed similar vessels at about the same time, probably independently. The notion that the Chinese discovered America for outsiders long before Columbus did has been propounded (and not—yet—debunked by historians). If they did so, they would have used the clockwise Pacific gyre, both current and wind, to get there. It was certainly true that for a brief period, about 1300 to 1400, the Chinese mastered the oceans, building 350-foot vessels with nine masts; the Mings once raised a fleet of more than 3,500 ships, mostly for trade—they rather disdained conquest, not wanting too much truck with lesser cultures.10 By the fifth century, Indian and Indo-Malayan merchant ships traveled from ports on India's east coast to Guangzhou (Canton); later, Arabs and Persians sailed from the Red Sea to India. By the eighth and ninth centuries China's southern ports were already full of foreigners; merchant ships that plied the China Sea carried both oars and sails, and already used the compass for navigation.
From the thirteenth century onward, vessels both Occidental and Oriental were capable of sailing anywhere in the world. The workhorse of the trading world was the caravel, a ship about seventy feet long and with three masts: the foremast carrying a square foresail and topsail, stepped through the high forecastle at the bow; a mainmast, amidships, with square mainsail and topsail; and aft, on the raised sterncastle, the mizzenmast, with a lateen-rigged sail. With the exception of the lateen sail, the sails were hung from a yard at right angles to the longitudinal axis of the boat. The lateen sail at the stern, set fore and aft, had several advantages over the square sails. It was more efficient in sailing close to the wind, and it could be used to push the boat around when tacking.n 11 The increased number of sails also created a boat with greater maneuverability, one that was faster, easier to sail, and required fewer crew. It became the standard vessel for Prince Henry's discoverers and was used by Columbus in his explorations.
For the next few hundred years shipbuilders produced as many new designs as Detroit did cars in the 1950s. Sails and sail types proliferated. Before long, a typical ship's mast would carry six sails—the "course" at the bottom, the lower and upper topsails, the lower and upper topgallants, and the royal or skysail at the top. Vessel types proliferated too. There were barques, barquentines, galleons, East Indiamen, frigates, brigs and brigantines, snows, and then schooners.
A full-rigged ship is a royal queen,
Way-hay for Boston town, oh!
A lady at court is a barquentine,
A barque is a gal with ringlets fair,
A brig is the same with shorter hair,
A topsail schooner's a racing mare,
but a schooner she's a clown, Oh!12
The schooner was developed in the Boston states, which in practice seemed to include Nova Scotia, as the fishing and trading workhorse of coastal waters; its ancestor was the two-masted coaster that plied British and Dutch waters in the sixteenth century In the nineteenth century, Lunenburg and Shelburne and Yarmouth, Portsmouth and Gloucester—especially Gloucester, Massachusetts—and Boston found themselves the center of one of the world's most productive industries, building more ships in a few decades than any other place but Old England, not just schooners but brigs and brigantines and barques. The schooners that emerged from shipyards up and down the coast generally had two or more masts, without any square sails. Most were small, nimble, weatherly craft, but some had seven masts and were among the largest sailing vessels ever built. The topsail schooner, a British development of the American schooner, did carry one or two square sails on the upper part of the foremast, which improved her downwind performance.
The age of sail ended with a panache seldom exceeded in any technology. For one brief decade, in the late 1840s and early 1850s, the clipper ship burst her way through the stodgy and the hidebound, and raced her wondrous way into men's hearts. As John Dyson put it eloquently in Spirit of Sail: On Board the World's Greatest Sailing Ships, "The Clipper was a ship to grapple with every element but fire. In the whole history of navigation nothing excelled her dash and good looks—the slender hull, springy as a sea hollow; the three tall masts slightly raked to give her a youthful look, hungry for action; the great blade of her bow, curved and sharp, scattering flying fish as it scythed blue water."
Before the clipper, commercial long-distance sailing was still a relatively ponderous, slow, methodical, and mundane affair. As Dyson says, British maritime law still mandated that "British cargoes [must be] carried on British keels," a way of keeping the upstart Yankees out of world trade. The great merchantmen, like the East Indiamen, were cumbersome, slow, heavily armed, more akin to a warship than a merchant. "Their officers wore naval uniforms, and their heavily armed gun decks were manned by naval gunners to fight off the roving pirates of the Arabian and China coasts … It took a gale of a wind to move one of these elephantine ships, and when they did move, it was seldom at the rate of more than three to four nautical miles an hour." What fast vessels there were, sloops, cutters, and schooners, were little bigger than modern yachts, almost always less than one hundred feet long.
"But suddenly a new ship appeared, the Yankee clipper. She was long and lean, with a beautiful, sweeping sheer line, and such clouds of snowy canvas flying from her lofty spars as to make the old salts shake their heads and predict the clippers would capsize at their piers before even getting under way."13 The first clippers were built in New York by an American consortium, the shipwright a young man named Donald McKay from Jordan River, Nova Scotia, who as far as we know had only built one vessel before, a barkentine (and whose accounts with a Shelburne blacksmith still survive—he bought rivets for crosstrees, for mast hoops, and for rudder bands; hinges for quarter boards; a strap for a martingale; hoops for a windlass). Alas, he went bankrupt, and decamped like so many before and after him for America.
Then the British repealed the law demanding that only British-built vessels be used for trade; and this allowed the Yankees to sail triumphantly into history.
The Yankee clipper was not massive, and her cargo capacity was modest. Her genius lay in speed, and with her knifelike bow and sweeping lines, she cut through the water twice as fast as anything else afloat—faster even than modern steamers. Under the hard-driving captain Bully Forbes, the Boston-built Lightning logged 436 nautical miles in twenty-four hours in a southern gale. It is probably the fastest day's run ever made under sail.
The Yankee clippers, though, were generally made of softwood and soon got waterlogged and sluggish. The British, no sluggards themselves in the art of shipbuilding, took the idea and made their own Clippers from iron and hardwood, and the China clippers that resulted are regarded as the apex of the shipbuilder's art—the perfect combination of grace and beauty on the one hand and cargo-carrying and seaworthiness on the other. Perhaps the greatest of all was the Taeping, made of iron and greenheart oak and teak, which carried nearly 2°y°square feet of sail, and covered 16,000 sea miles in a paltry ninety-five days.
Both to and from Australia, the traditional route for sailing ships was by way of Cape of Good Hope; the duration of passage was typically 120 days, but clipper ships cut that in half. Outward bound to Australia they turned well south of the Cape and headed across the bottom of the world to run their easting in the powerful winds and wild seas of the south latitudes known as the roaring forties. Running for home, they continued around the globe in the same direction, looking for strong stern winds in the world's loneliest ocean, then turned Cape Horn and headed up the Atlantic … The clipper ship's trade was distance. She was not capacious, so all her profit lay in speed. The breathtaking nerve and splendor caught the popular imagination as space flights do today; more bets were placed on her finish up the Thames than were placed on the Derby.
In the heyday of the China Clippers, it became de rigeur among the chattering classes in London to be the first to drink the freshest tea from China, debarked from the first vessel of the season to arrive—the Beaujolais nouveau of its time. In 1854 the Stornoway and the Chrysolite headed from Whampoa, China, to Liverpool, England, at a dead run, both arriving in exactly 105 days; the Stornoway's skipper remained on deck the whole time, sleeping what sleep he managed in a chair lashed to a hatchway. The Oriental made it the following year in 97 days.
It couldn't last. The Suez Canal, "that dirty ditch," marked the end to the days of sail, and the black smoke of the steamers finally overtook the billowing canvas of the clippers. Most of the great ships met ignominious ends. "Chrysolite was wrecked in Madagascar with a cargo of bullocks; Stornoway foundered in the North Sea; Staghound burned to the waterline; Surprise was sunk by a drunken Japanese pilot; Fiery Cross, Taeping and Serica were wrecked in the China Sea; Ariel was pooped and lost in the southern ocean. Others were cut down by steamers, converted into coal hulks, or simply disappeared with all hands. Only the Cutty Sark remains, a dry docked hulk in London."14
This kind of loss is still poignantly felt around here. Among the many sleek and beautiful vessels turned out of Lunenburg shipyards was the legendary Bluenose, under its even more legendary skipper, Angus Walters. For decades the Bluenose raced against the best and fastest that New Englanders from Gloucester and Boston could throw against her, and though she lost a few races, even the Gloucestermen, albeit grudgingly, called her Queen of the Atlantic. But in the end, the internal combustion engine was not resistible. They tried packing a motor into the Bluenose, but she wasn't meant for diesel, and was sluggish underway. Eventually she foundered on a reef off Haiti with a cargo of coal, and was lost. That was in 1946. That really was the end.
Unless, unless … Don Barr, the former skipper of the tall ship Bluenose II, believes that anyone with a fifty-foot schooner could make a good living today, in the early years of the millennium, the cost of freight—the cost of oil, he means—being what it is. Never mind what the burning of oil is doing to the environment; its uncertain supply and spiking cost, he believes, may make sail once more competitive, not just for feel-good do-gooders, but for businessmen trying to cut their costs. And the experimentation goes on, for humans really can't resist tinkering to make things just that little bit better … and the wind is always a challenge.
In September 2004 a curious flotilla gathered off Rhode Island. The boats were all what is called C-class catamarans. They were all oddly shaped, with protrusions and struts and ailerons and peculiar sails that only occasionally looked functional. This was the International Catamaran Challenge Trophy, also known as the Little America's Cup, the world's most high-tech regatta. What attracted the high-techies was that the regatta's relaxed rules meant the designers could try almost anything as long as they didn't exceed the maximum dimensions and permitted sail area. It was the first time the race had been run since 1996, when Duncan MacLane of the United States skippered Cogitoto victory over the Australians. Going in, the favorite was a British vessel called Invictus; designed by aerospace engineers and sailed by John Downey, a retired Concorde pilot. In trial runs Invictus had reached the astounding speed of 30 knots (34 miles an hour) in a 15-knot wind—the real America's Cup yachts would be lucky to reach 10 knots under the same conditions. In the end, though, Invictus had to scratch after an accident in the setup races, and Cogitowon again, beating its boathouse-mate Patient Lady in the finals.
The most interesting things about both Invictus and Cogito were their sails—a rigid wing that looked as though a real aircraft wing had somehow been chopped off and stuck upright on the hull. The wing sail works the same way an aircraft wing does, using lift provided through Bernoulli's principle, except that the lift is forward and not up, just as it is in a pitcher's curveball. This forward lift drives the vessel forward because the sail is held upright at an angle to the wind. The rigid sail is more efficient than canvas partly because it doesn't have to waste time finding its shape before propulsion happens, and the whole sail can be at the correct angle, not just the core of it. Also, its carefully designed shape produces lift at a much smaller angle to the wind than a fabric one. And finally, a rigid sail supports itself, which means less cabling and tension wires, which means everything can be lighter, like a sailboard. The vessel itself weighs little more than the two people that crew it.15 The downside: You can't reef the sail in a gale. In a real blow, you stay home.
Apart from the invention of sailing ships and windmills, and then aircraft, humans were slow both to understand and then to use local winds, and slower still to copy natural examples readily at hand.
Take the example of air-conditioning—the cooling of uncomfortably overheated air. I've already mentioned that termites "invented" or discovered or at least used air-conditioning. When I was a boy, we once demolished a termite mound (not out of malice, only practicality—crushed and rolled out, termite earth makes the best "clay" tennis courts in the world, and my uncle Blen was paying us pennies a wheelbarrow-load), and I saw for myself how the insects had angled ventilation chambers into the wind to bring cooling air deep down into the earth. They had even invented pressurization; there were dead-end chambers where the winds were compressed before being redirected even deeper in the mound, deep down where the queen lives. Termites invented air-conditioning, what, a hundred million years ago? Humans had to wait until fairly recent historical times for a version of it. Early human-created air-conditioning systems simply consisted of hanging damp rags in windows and doors, where air currents would cause evaporation, and thus cooling, an effect arrived at empirically, with no knowledge of the mechanics involved. Later, the system was reinvigorated by the Roman emperor Varius Avitus, who ordered ice and snow from nearby mountains to be placed in public parks for the same reason.
Other cultures have developed other devices for cooling the air, or at least fending off the extreme heat. The desert nomads in the Sahara, where damp rags are not an option, developed a simple wind flow device consisting of a horizontal layer of fabric suspended on poles above a tent, which has the effect of creating differential heating patterns, which produce a breeze between the two layers, muting the brutal heat of the Saharan sun. Air cooling dictated the layout of the Egyptian city of Kahun in pharaonic times; at around 2000 B.C. the Kahunian power elite made sure their houses were oriented to the cooler north winds, while the slave classes were packed in higgledy-piggledy to the south. In pre-Raj times, the city of Hyderabad in India contained houses with tall central air shafts and air scoops on the roof oriented to the winds, that drew cooling air into the interior. This was the same pattern developed, or imported, by the Swahili traders of Zanzibar, a system still used in that city, where the stone houses tend to be five or six stories tall, with the cooler sleeping rooms on the lower levels and the warmer public rooms higher up (the kitchen is typically on the roof). The Romans used similar ducts for heating, as the Incas did for their smelting furnaces.
In this sporadic, episodic way, a technical mastery of the winds developed. Human cultures moved quickly beyond having to sacrifice virgins to placate the wind gods; even Aristotle's sketchy knowledge of meteorology represented real progress, in the sense that it sought a technical grasp of how wind actually worked. But for an understanding of the theory behind it natural scientists had to wait until Leonardo had grasped the principles of conservation of mass; and even then nothing could be confirmed until Torricelli, Galileo, Sir Francis Bacon's Historia Ventorum, and Isaac Newton's theories of mechanics. As late as the nineteenth century engineers were still operating with hazy theoretical principles and had to resort to actual testing to see what was needed. A good case in point was Gustave Eiffel's design and construction of the Eiffel Tower for the French Exposition, which led to considerable advances in atmospheric science—Eiffel's wind-load design assumptions were among the earliest sophisticated attempts to understand static wind loading on buildings.
It took another five decades before the first wind tunnels were built for the laboratory testing of winds, and it wasn't until the 1970s that the term wind engineering took on common currency. But now, in the laboratories of the great universities, not just in the faculties of environmental studies but in the schools of engineering and applied sciences, the seductive notion that the wind is essentially free motive power is once again taking root. There is still resistance to the reality of our negative impact on the planet, but the oppressive weight of the evidence is having its effect and experimental notebooks are filling with curious designs that are at once sleekly modern and archaic in conception. The engineers playing with their catamarans in the Little America's Cup are but one example. Sail-assisted ocean steamers had a brief fad in the eighties, and are now reappearing; there are already models capable of reducing fuel burdens by up to 15 percent. More radically, self-fueling vessels are on the drawing boards, driven by hydrogen engines, the hydrogen derived from the sea via wind power. Dirigibles, no longer hydrogen filled but hydrogen propelled, are also reappearing. Aircraft designers are looking to thermal lift, as the birds always have.
The designers haven't gone back to Icarus yet, but it can't be long.
Lower West Pubnico—as opposed to just West Pubnico, or to East Pubnico across the Argyle Sound—is a bucolic little village on Nova Scotia's south shore. I mean, I have lived in bucolic little villages— indeed, I live very near one now—but even by these standards, Lower West Pubnico is very definitely not urban, or industrial. Just a coop store, a fish plant, a rather good restaurant that serves that curious Acadian dish called rappie pie, and half a hundred houses, in a very good state of repair. The inhabitants fish for a living, and they do well, mostly from lobstering, though they seem constantly to complain about the paucity of the pickings. They are, after all this time, still mostly Acadian in origin, and they share names like Amirault, Belliveau, de'Entremont, and d'Eon; no fewer than three pages of Pubnico's six in the telephone directory are filled with d'Entremonts, with first names ranging from Ada to Yvon. The tallest building in town by far is the church. Or at least it was. Now the church steeple is dwarfed by a series of gigantic windmills, or wind turbines. Their blades alone, rotating at a stately pace in the fresh breeze, are longer than the church is high.
You can see these turbines from across the bay at East Pubnico. They don't in fact look very large, or at all intrusive, but this is because you get no sense of their scale. You can keep them in sight as you round the head of the bay and head back down to West Pubnico. You can see them from the village there, but the curious thing is that they don't look any larger, or smaller, than they did around the bay, although you have traveled a good six miles. They actually look like normal windmills from almost ten miles and they take much longer to get to than you would expect. You travel through the village down the highway to Pubnico Point, which is where the locals used to go for romantic trysts, to watch the odd moose in the swamp, or to test out their AT Vs. Finally, the turbines seem to get larger and larger, and if you drive out to where the bulldozers have been grading access roads, you can park your car pretty much underneath the turbine towers (security is not a major concern at Lower West Pubnico). They loom overhead, gigantic and otherworldly, as massive and as unexpected as an office tower in the wilderness. Indeed, these things are the size of an office tower. The hub of the rotor is 257 feet above the ground, and the overall height, blades included, is 389 feet, about the size of a forty-story building. Even the blades are huge, each 262 feet in diameter, 11.62 feet at their widest, with a 13 degree twist. When I first saw them, they were rotating at a leisurely fifteen revolutions a minute, but they are so big that the blade tip was traveling at well in excess of 100 miles an hour. You can get no sense of this at all, until you watch the blade shadow whipping by on the ground, faster than an eyeblink.
I had seen earlier versions of wind turbines, in California and Maine and other places; the wind farm in the Altamont Pass east of San Francisco consists of more than six thousand of the things, of assorted vintages and designs, and I remember that many of them made a variety of more or less unpleasant noises—clanking and creaking, sometimes whining, occasionally as loud as an unmuf-flered lawnmower. The blades at Pubnico made hardly any sound at all. In a light wind you could hear a faint swishing if you stood directly underneath, but if the wind picked up, the sound of the breeze actually drowned the sound of the blades moving, and they appeared completely silent.
As of spring 2005, fifteen 1.8-megawatt Vestas turbines from Denmark had been installed. The project's financing was an example of what was becoming a familiar pattern in such green projects. Part of the ownership is local—sensible developers always try to head off on-the-ground opposition by getting the locals involved, and one of the d'Entremonts, Brad, is part owner. The rest is venture capital, money that flows in partly because of an assured customer base; Nova Scotia Power, the provincial generating company, has guaranteed a certain price for a kilowatt hour—a price made possible by a complicated series of incentives and tax breaks, part of the Canadian drive to meet its Kyoto commitments. By 2004 NSP, a notorious coal burner, was getting about 10 percent of its energy from renewables, mostly hydropower, and was looking to increase that to about 25 percent by 2006. About 100 gigawatt hours will come from Pubnico once the wind farm is complete. It would be the largest wind farm in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, with a nominal output of some 30.6 megawatts and an annual production of 100 million kilowatt hours of energy. According to the promotional material cheerfully handed to all and sundry by the builders, this would be "enough to prevent the production of 90,000 tons of CO and 50 tons of NO annually, roughly the equivalent of not driving 16,000 cars or planting 750,000 trees for 60 years. It would be enough energy to supply some 13,000 homes." Nice round numbers, these, but they should be treated with caution.
I spent an hour or so poking about the turbines, being regaled with statistics by an eager maintenance engineer, a local lad who had been taken off to Vestas headquarters in Denmark for training. He reeled off the numbers: the foundation of each tower is 15 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep, the bottom section anchored by 30-foot, two-inch-thick steel bolts spaced every foot around the tower, inside and out. The bottom section of the tower is 37 feet long, with a diameter of 13.2 feet tapering to 12, and weighs 48 tons. The uppermost of four sections that are bolted together is itself 80 feet long and weighs 43 tons. The nacelle where the rotor is housed weighs 68 tons, the rotor another 39 tons. The nacelle is the size of a school bus, and is large enough inside to jump up and down on its floor without hitting the roof. For the brave or exceptionally foolhardy, at the very top is a sunroof, with an apparently magnificent view—I took his word for it. You get to the top by ladder, 270 feet straight up. And yet so finely balanced is the whole structure that a single technician can haul on a cable and turn the whole massive thing by hand.
I'm dwelling rather longer on Lower West Pubnico and its generating capacity than might seem justified, partly because the mere fact that such a facility, with its sophisticated engineering and complex but by-now-familiar financing pattern, has made it to a part of the world that is hardly an industrial powerhouse is a good indication of the wind rush that is consuming the energy industry. Wind farms are being built everywhere from Point Reyes to Nantucket, from the Gulf of Mexico to Wisconsin, from the interior of British Columbia to the craggy coasts of Newfoundland. And in Europe, which is far ahead of America in these matters—pretty well everywhere. But wind power is not without its opponents, or its share of controversy. And not without a generous dollop of hype too.
Windmills were among the earliest technologies that replaced humans and domesticated animals as a source of energy, probably after waterwheels, which were easier to fabricate than windmills. Where the first windmills were built is, at least judging from the confident but contradictory available sources, still obscure. Some reference books suggest windmills were operating in China by 2000 B.C., but scant evidence has been found for this assertion. The U.S. Department of Energy maintains that "by 200 B.C., simple windmills in China were pumping water, while vertical-axis windmills with woven reed sails were grinding grain in Persia and the Middle East." There's no real evidence for these dates either. The first actual historical reference to windmills was from Persia in A.D. 644, but no drawings of the device survive. The first sketches date from 950, and show millers in the Persian city of Seistan grinding grain on a vertical axis windmill. By the eleventh century people all over the Middle East were using windmills extensively for food production. Some reports say the Crusaders brought the idea back to Europe at about that time, but this is doubtful. The very different design of the European mills, generally built on a horizontal axis, implies that they were invented independently. It does seem clear that Persian millwrights, captured by the invading forces of Genghis Khan, were sent to China to construct windmills there, mostly to draw water for irrigation projects on the dry plains north of Beijing.
Once domesticated in Europe, windmills spread rapidly. By the fourteenth century almost all mills everywhere in Europe were taxed, sometimes severely, but this didn't stop their spread. By the eighteenth century there were windmills in nearly every field in Europe. In Britain alone, it is now estimated there may have been almost ninety thousand of them. They simply became part of the countryside. In Holland too. The Dutch were among the preeminent millers, using windmills not just for agriculture and industry but also for draining the lakes and marshes of the Rhine delta. By the early eighteenth century the profile that is still familiar from Dutch landscape paintings appeared all over the continent: a squarish building with a section that could rotate into the wind, with four huge, clanking wooden sails. The Zaan River region of the Netherlands became a global industrial powerhouse, a center of heavy industry and a major exporter, all the factories powered by the wind, the oil of its time.
No one regarded these edifices as eyesores. They were utilitarian devices and lacked any charm except for a marked efficiency, but people grew fond of them for what they represented. As the industrial revolution proceeded apace, and as steam engines gradually replaced windmills for milling and drawing water, nostalgia replaced need, and by the 1990s only one of the Zaan windmills was left, courtesy of local pride and heavy subsidies. A few others survive elsewhere, also as historical curiosities or tourist attractions. One relic is in Cape Town, and I poked through it as a boy, fascinated as all boys seem to be with its array of pulleys and levers and wooden gear wheels. I remember its keeper saying that the wind was only sufficient one day a week, and that the mill even then operated for a couple of hours a day, the rest of the time taken up with trimming its sails and repairing the frequent breakdowns. Another such mill survives in the United States, in the Michigan town of Holland, an authentic Dutch mill built in the 1720s, taken to the United States in 1964.
In the colonial era, windmills soon spread to the most arid of places, in many cases making the difference between viable farming and penury. I remember them from when I was a boy. It hardly rained where I grew up, though when it did, the clouds burst, and for most of the year the rivers were dry, dusty places where thorn-bushes grew and weaver birds made their intricate nests. My grandfather only had water courtesy of a borehole he had drilled 950 feet into the shale and rock of the substrata, into an aquifer left over from prehistory, and it was drawn to the surface by a clanking windmill, a mechanical, charmless thing. For a while I thought it made the water, somewhere in its rusty heart. Windmills just like it became critical to human spread in the nineteenth century; they made life in the South African barrens possible, they opened up the Australian hinterlands, they followed the dispersal of Americans westward through the dusty High Plains and allowed them to settle there with their stock, in what would otherwise have been a desert. A little later, in the first decades of the twentieth century, windmills not only drew water; they generated what little electricity a household needed. My grandfather had a small Delco wind generator on a tower above his house, which charged up a single battery, enough to fire up the primitive radio (not much better than a crystal set, as I remember), which the family used in the 1940s to gather news of the ominous doings in Europe.
Windmills still clank in remote places of the American West, drawing water without supervision and hardly needing maintenance, far from the grid or any homestead. But in most places the useful windmills have disappeared; replaced at first by the steam engine and then by electricity. In America the Rural Electrification Administration's programs brought inexpensive electric power to most areas in the United States in the 1930s.
The very industrialization that killed traditional windmills also laid the foundations for their further development. Windmills may have been vanishing everywhere, but they had been around recently enough that many scientists remembered them, and the memory set off a generation of inspired tinkerers. As the hunger for electricity increased, so did the notion of capturing the perpetual motion machine of the world's winds, not for direct power as in the past, but to generate power that could then be used for other purposes.
The first wind turbines, as they came to be called, appeared in Denmark in the 1880s. Still, the first windmill built expressly to generate electricity was built by a mechanical engineer, Charles Brush, in Cleveland in 1888. Before him, few had dared to grapple with it, Scientific American opined in 1890, "for the question not only involved the motive power itself and the dynamo, but also the means of transmitting the power of the wheel to the dynamo, and apparatus for regulating, storing and utilizing the current."
Brush was, to use a labored pun commonly used to describe him at the time, a dynamo. He was one of the founders of the American electricity industry, for the company he founded merged with Thomas Edison's business under the name General Electric Company. His wind turbine is now largely forgotten, except to cultural historians. It was a great clanking thing fifty-six feet in diameter, with no fewer than 144 rotor blades made of cedar, and developed a measly 12 kilowatts.16
Brush's system used solenoids to control the power output, a technology that didn't change until the 1980s, when computers took over the task. But otherwise his device was soon superseded; the so-called wind-rose design, a large wheel with many blades, was inherently inefficient, and it was a Dane, Poul la Cour, who made the next breakthrough. He built his first models in a wind tunnel and discovered that faster rotation, using many fewer blades, was much better at generating electricity than the slow-moving windmills adapted by Brush. La Cour's first prototype was a sleek, four-bladed machine that turned extremely rapidly.
La Cour was trained as a meteorologist, not an engineer, but he was an inveterate tinkerer and tried out many of his devices in Askov, the community where he and his wife lived. He gave courses on electrical generation at the local high school, published the first-ever wind journal, The Journal of Wind Electricity, and founded the Society of Wind Electricians in 1905, three years before his death. In one way he was more farsighted than many who succeeded him, because he recognized one of the drawbacks of wind power, its inherently intermittent nature, and tried to solve the problem by using the electricity he produced to run electrolysis experiments aimed at producing hydrogen to light the gas lamps at the local school. Good idea, except that his engineering skills were not as keen as his imagination, and he had to replace the windows of the school buildings more than once after they blew out—oxygen had leaked into the hydrogen, causing several nice explosions.
By 1918 more than a hundred local utilities in Denmark had at least one wind turbine, usually putting out no more than 20 or 35 kilowatts. In total, wind already accounted for about 3 percent of Danish electricity consumption. Most of these turbines were locally owned and operated, often by cooperatives of farmers, and sited close to the devices they were designed to power. This wide distribution, with the concomitant wide acceptance, was a major reason why Denmark remained the world leader in wind turbines by the year 2005. At the turn of the millennium an astounding 5 percent of the Danish population owned at least one share in a wind turbine, and the Danish public came to see them as natural parts of the landscape, both urban and rural; and their relatively small scale, absent the grandiosities of the first American incarnations, meant that it was easy to make small, incremental, and cumulative design improvements.
By the 1940s, the largest wind turbine ever attempted was built by a Vermonter, Palmer Cosslet Putnam, on a hillside called Grandpa's Knob near his home. It had two seventy-foot stainless steel blades each weighing eight tons, and generated enough power, 1.25 megawatts in a 30 mile an hour wind, to power about two hundred homes, fed through the local utility. In 1945 a blade tore loose, demolishing a few trees along its arc, and the turbine was never repaired. Cheap electricity produced by cheap coal and cheap oil put most of the research efforts on hold.
Until the 1970s, when OPEC's first oil shock hit, setting off another wave of R&D in both America and Europe.
A wind turbine is the opposite of a fan. Instead of using electricity to make wind, wind turbines use wind to make electricity. The wind turns the blades, which spin a shaft, which connects to a generator and makes electricity. So far so simple. What makes it effective is the force that wind generates.
As described earlier, the force exerted by the wind on a structure varies by the square of its wind speed—that is, the force exerted by a 24-mile-per-hour wind is four times the force exerted by a 12-mile-per-hour wind. It's not just wind that does this—the ratio applies to all kinetic motion. If you double the speed of a traveling car, say, it will take four times the power to bring it down to a standstill, in accordance with Newton's second law of motion. But the wind's energy as it applies to windmills is greater still—it increases with the cube (the third power) of its velocity, not the square. That is, if the wind speed is twice as fast, it contains eight times as much energy (2X2X2). This apparently puzzling fact is explained by the fact that the wind passes through the turbine, so that if the speed of the wind doubles, twice as many slices of wind pass through the turbine each second, and each slice contains the usual four times as much energy, yielding up the eight-times result.
The speed of the winds, then, is critical, and has great practical implications. Take an average wind speed for a day of an arbitrary 11.2 miles an hour. Say the wind in London blows all day at that speed, 11.2 miles an hour, but the winds in Paris blow at 8.2 miles an hour half the day and 14.2 the other half. The averages are the same, but in practice Paris would get as much power from half a day as London did the whole day. The shorter but faster winds add enormously more power.17 In electrical generation terms, a wind speed of 26 feet a second will yield a power output of 314 watts for every three feet of turbine; but at 54 feet a second, the power output is 2512 watts.18
Utility-scale turbines are almost all 50 kilowatts or larger, up to four megawatts. Single small turbines below 50 kilowatts, often in association with photovoltaic systems, are used for homes, telecommunications dishes, or water pumping. And this is the green Utopian dream: for every building a small wind plant and solar panel system, generating a supply of site-specific hydrogen that will run pretty well everything now run electrically. No more grid. No more massive power stations. No more nuclear. No more transmission lines to go down in storms. No more being beholden to OPEC. No more carbon-based pollutants. No more terrorist threats against infrastructure … A convert' to the dream in 2004 was the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, who vowed to turn Chicago into the greenest city in America by 2006. Half of that green power would come from "super modern windmills" whirring silently inside cages encrusted with solar panels, installed atop the city's buildings.19 This distributed-model dream is also shared by the nuclear industry. Why not a tiny reactor in every building? The two sides don't talk to each other very much.
The oil shock had several other consequences. The most obvious was to push government research grants radically upward. In the late 1960s, U.S. subsidies were a paltry $60,000 a year; six years later they had reached $20 million. Then subsidies were awarded to those who actually produced electricity that could be fed into the grid, subsidies that basically guaranteed producers a profit and allowed the utilities to offset a portion of their costs. The result was a proliferation of wind power companies, and the springing up of wind farms everywhere. The first, and one of the largest, has been part of the landscape on the Altamont Pass, on Interstate 580 east of San Francisco, for thirty years. Another is in Texas; Texans on I-10 heading west to El Paso will see a huge array of turbines stretching endlessly across the plain. In American fashion, entrepreneurship was to be unfettered by overzealous regulation, with consequences that horrified the tidy Danes. The wind farms that sprang up in California, particularly, were, not to put too fine a point on it, ugly. The turbines were of random sizes and random designs; they were often sited on skylines within view of residential areas. In at least one case, the desert community of Palm Springs, the residences they were in sight of were those of the megarich, like Bob Hope, and the squawking was loud and unremitting. Worse, the Palm Springs turbines used a lattice design for their towers, which made them resemble the pylons used to carry power lines across the country. To make things still worse, it seemed that half of them weren't working at any one time. It was a curiosity that all the opinion polls taken at the time were more negative about idled turbines than about working ones.
The Altamont Pass is a dispiriting place for anyone who wants to believe that wind generation of electricity can exist in harmony with nature. I was last there in the spring of 2004; it was a golden California day and I could see apparently forever, wave after wave of silky, golden brown folds in the landscape, dotted here and there with acacia and live oak. In the far distance the air was smoky, a blue haze melting into the golden grass. But in the near distance … A passing security patrol let me through a gate; he was bored and pleased to have something, anything, to do, and tramping a complete stranger through the six thousand or so turbines was better than nothing. It was not a pretty sight. A steady wind was blowing, but at least a third of the turbines were idle. Of those that did turn, many were scraping and squeaking and clanking, badly in need of maintenance. Others had toppled altogether. The ground was littered with debris, twisted struts, broken blades, piles of concrete. Access roads had been carelessly scraped into the fragile landscape, and were now eroding into a pattern of ugly scars. There was trash everywhere. Many of the structures housing the controllers and transformers were in need of paint.
If you were really careful, you could angle yourself to screen out the worst of the vistas. If you walk along the hiking trail that traverses the site for about a mile, you can see a ridge with a graceful line of new turbines soaring over it, as elegant as the flight path of a gull, a sight that lifted the heart, but the overall impression was overwhelmingly depressing. "There are some good people with good machines here," said the security guard, squatting on his heels, staring down into a gully. He sounded glum. "But lots of them don't care. I guess they took their money and ran. Too bad they don't make them clear up after themselves." He himself lived down in the valley, within sight of a few hundred turbines. "They don't look too bad," he said, "from a distance."
Altamont is everyone's worst-case scenario. Even on the Sussex Downs in England, wind farm opponents trot out pictures of Altamont to scare the locals.
But the turbines that are being built now almost all follow the Danish model. They are tall, solid towers, no longer made of iron lattice but white painted steel, soaring into the sky, their three-bladed rotors as graceful as storks, as I had seen for myself at Lower West Pubnico. And they are springing up everywhere. The wind rush, indeed, is on.
As an industry, wind energy didn't really exist twenty years ago, but there was a fivefold increase (487 percent) in wind-delivered electricity between 1995 and 2001. Wind power is now growing by 30 percent a year. Windswept Scotland has come to consider itself the future Saudi Arabia of the wind business. Wind farms have been constructed in France, Germany, Holland, Poland, and well into Russia. Offshore wind farms can now be found off virtually every available European coast; Ireland has announced plans to become an offshore power generating megapower. Britain will have four thousand turbines by 2006. In Germany, there were already seven thousand installed by 2004, and the number was increasing rapidly. By Lester Brown's calculations at his WorldWatch Institute, by 2004 enough power was already being extracted from the wind to meet the needs of 23 million people, or the combined populations of the Scandinavian countries. Denmark gets more than a quarter of its energy from wind, a target only dreamed of in North America. Meanwhile coal generation has dropped 9 percent. Wind energy has come of age, to quote the title of the best-known book on wind generation,20 and has far outstripped its rivals in the renewable energy department, photovoltaic solar power, tidal power generation, and the like. It is the first renewable other than hydroelectric power to achieve commercial viability; modern turbines approaching two megawatts are competitive with coal and nuclear power, and better yet, wind power is not vulnerable to a cartel—winds blow everywhere. In the last decade production costs for wind power have dropped from about thirty cents per kilowatt hour to less than six, and some companies have reached three cents, which compares increasingly favorably to the standard two to five cents for conventional fuels. Wind potential is about five times the current global consumption of energy, and can be produced from areas that are not environmentally sensitive.21
And some of the heaviest of corporate hitters are rapidly getting into the picture. These include Shell, Scottish Power/PPM Energy, and AES Corp. In the United States, American Electric Power (AEP), the largest United States generator of electricity and a leading coal miner, has gone into wind power in a big way. AEP's Trent Mesa wind farm near Abilene, Texas, has one hundred turbines generating 1.5 megawatts each. Early turbines in Texas were built by Zond Energy Systems, which later became Enron Wind; when Enron went spectacularly belly up, AEP snapped up the assets. Chevron-Texaco power and gasification division head James Houck said in 2004 that "wind power is an increasingly viable source of power generation." Ronald Lehr, a former Colorado public utilities commissioner, said, "The big players who didn't give a hoot four years ago are finally getting into the game, which is precisely what is needed to make wind a viable energy source." Even George Bush, as governor of Texas, signed a bill requiring utilities to get 2,000 megawatts of electricity from renewables by 2009, setting off the largest annual increase in wind power in U.S. history.22
A total of ten offshore wind farms were operating in 2004, in Denmark, Sweden, the U.K., and Holland, including the world's largest, Horns Rev in Denmark, at 160 megawatts. The Irish government, not to be outdone, approved plans for an even bigger offshore wind farm, to be built on a sandbank in the Irish sea off Dublin. It would produce 520 megawatts. By early 2005, plans had been announced for twenty-six more, in the U.K., Ireland again, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, and possibly the United States. Britain alone was planning fifteen giant offshore farms, in the Thames estuary, the Wash, and off the northwest and Welsh coasts. Each could have up to five hundred of the biggest turbines available, each turbine generating 4.75 megawatts. Offshore is favored by developers despite the hazards and difficulties of engineering structures to withstand ocean gales, partly because wind shear is low at sea, and less turbulent, and so turbines can be built less tall for the same gain, and are likely to have a longer life. Utility companies had announced investments of some $17.5 billion in British wind projects.23 Estimates were that about 5 gigawatts of the projected worldwide total of 60 gigawatts by 2010 would come from offshore farms.
Global capacity of wind power was 23,300 megawatts in 2002, and increased by 30 percent each of the following years.
Heady days, then, full of promise but with just a hint, a faint whiff, of economic bubble and hype.
Everywhere, in the United States, or Britain, or anywhere in Europe, wind power is being pushed by government subsidies. Whether this is a good thing depends on which side you have chosen to believe. Opponents come very close to implying the whole thing is a scam; among them the nuclear industry, which has a vested interest in seeing wind power fail—many a nuclear plant is lying around with nothing to do. Wind proponents point to the massive subsidies that oil and gas exploration companies have received over the decades, never mind the nuclear industry, and are aghast at the hypocrisy that now opposes subsidies for a competing technology. That the subsidies do make a difference, no one doubts. Katherine Seelye reported in the New York Times that U.S. federal subsidies allow wind power companies to deduct 1.8 cents tax liability for every kilowatt hour they produce for ten years. Jerome Niessen, president of NedPower, which has received West Virginia permission for a two hundred-turbine wind farm in Grant County, said he expected to generate 800 million kilowatt hours a year, for a tax savings of $16 million a year for 10 years, or $160 million on a wind farm that will cost $300 million to build.24
Wind power has generated huge controversy in the environmental movement. Sometimes the opposition verges on hysteria, and the picture painted of wind farms is that of some alien monster marching across the countryside, ruining the landscape, killing the wildlife, making life a misery for everyone. It sometimes sounds as though the worst excesses of the industrial revolution are threatening to overwhelm the pristine countryside, as if windmills brought with them belching smokestacks, miles of concrete and asphalt, awful noises, and visual pollution. The perpetrators are portrayed as typical capitalist rapists, representatives of massive multinationals, unconcerned with ordinary people, prepared to blight the world for corporate profit.
The reality, as I have seen for myself, is rather different. Most wind power companies are small start-ups with impeccably green credentials. But sometimes the wind industry has been disingenuous in its claims, slippery with its facts, and with an apparently inbuilt propensity to exaggerate and lie.
The two most interesting examples of how rancorous the debate can get are in Britain and the United States.
The British example, described by John Vidal in The Guardian, is from a remote area (well, as remote as you can get in a small island with seventy million people) on the Welsh border, near the magnificent scenery of the Snowdonia mountains. The Conway Valley in Wales is sheep-farming country, and the people who set off the uproar are hardly typical representatives of Big Corporatism. They were sheep farmers themselves, Geraint Davies and the brothers Robin and Rheinalt Williams. They have brought down on their unsuspecting heads a posse of heavyweight greeners, including the Snowdonia Society, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, the tourism industry, various rambler societies (a curious British phenomenon dedicated to keeping as much of the countryside open to hikers as possible), the National Trust, the local Labour MP, and various members of the Welsh Assembly. More than sixty national and local groups are signing up for the fight. The wind farm they are objecting to consists of three slender turbines projecting 150 feet above a derelict stone barn. But yes, they can be seen from some of Snowdonia's peaks.
As The Guardian pointed out, few local people objected when the project began. The reasons for it seemed sound. They liked the idea of some of their own diversifying out of sheep farming, which no longer made anyone any money anyway. As Davies put it at the time, "Our copper, our slate, our young people and our water have all gone over the border. Well, our wind won't." He dismisses his critics as white settlers, a nasty dig in Britain, comparing them to the whites who settled in Rhodesia, shamelessly exploiting the black inhabitants. They were rich urbanites who had paid a lot of money for a view and just wanted to protect their investments, he declared. The opposition called wind power lunacy, asserting that it would wreck the environment it was claiming to save, and comparing it to the fatuous boast once made by a U.S. military commander in Vietnam that he'd had to destroy a village in order to save it from the enemy.25 It was NIMBYism taken to an extreme, to protect a yard most of the owners only saw on weekends.
The debate, if it can be dignified by that term, over a proposed 130-turbine wind farm in Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod was uglier still. At one point there was even an indictment, when one of the leaders of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the leading antiturbine contender, was charged with planting a fake newspaper article designed to discredit the project's builders as fraud artists. The builder was Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind Associates, whose plan was to spend $700 million to build America's first offshore wind farm. His engineers had not picked Nantucket Sound because they wanted to irritate a lot of very wealthy people. They picked it because they needed shallow water, protection from Atlantic storms, isolation from main shipping channels, easy access to the electrical grid and, of course, wind—with an annual average of 18 miles an hour. The sound, in the federal waters of Horseshoe Shoal separating Cape Cod from Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket and less than seven miles from the Kennedy family compound, was the ideal spot.
Among the heavyweight Cape Cod vacationers who opposed the project on aesthetic grounds were a former CEO of a large copper mining company, an attorney who represented Exelon Generation, one of the largest fossil-fuel-generating companies in the United States, Walter Cronkite, and Robert Kennedy Jr. "Our national treasures should be exempt from industrialization," Cronkite put it in a radio broadcast, while rather sheepishly admitting to the New York Times that yes, his own house happened to look out at that very national treasure.
The Kennedy connection really grated on those Greens who were for the proposal. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental organization for which Robert Kennedy is a senior attorney, has strongly supported offshore wind power in the past, but here he was, arguing vigorously against just such a project—because, they suspected, he could see it from his front yard. This was not NIMBYism, it was NIVOMDism, "Not in View of My Deck—ism."26 "I am all for wind power," Kennedy insisted in a debate with the developer on Boston's NPR affiliate. "The costs … on the people of this region are so huge … the diminishment to property values, the diminishment to marinas, to businesses … People go to the Cape because they want to connect themselves with the history and the culture. They want to see the same scenes the Pilgrims saw when they landed at Plymouth Rock." The New York Times writer who recounted his rambling defence, Elinor Burkett, pointed out, rather gently, I thought, that the Pilgrims never saw Nantucket Sound, and if they had, they wouldn't have spied the Kennedy compound. As for the pristine sound being desecrated by a skyline of flashing lights, other project proponents were even more sardonic: "The Sound is not pristine," says Matt Patrick, a member of the state legislature whose support for the plan greatly compromised his reelection campaign. "You can't get to shore because it is lined with memorials to bad taste. Motorboats race around it, and if you go offshore in the summer, you look back and see yellow brown haze hanging over the mainland. And they make it sound as if Nantucket Sound will look like downtown New York, but the wind farm will be only a thumbnail on the horizon." Dick Elrick, a Barnstable councilman who has been a ferryboat captain for two decades, is even angrier, mostly about the support given to the antis by commercial fishermen who themselves operate drag-gers. "It's tough to listen to the same fishermen who have hurt the habitat by overdragging the bottom of the Sound [now] waving the flag of environmentalism," he said.27
The truth of the matter is … that the truth of the matter is very hard to discern, a common conclusion in this sort of debate. Both sides seem to be talking at cross purposes. The antis are not anti environmentalism, for the most part. They are just suspicious of this particular path to salvation. And so they tend to talk in code, and just end up sounding hypocritical. Wind power enthusiasts, on the other hand, are just as disingenuous, and their numbers are not to be trusted. The wattage output numbers in their press releases and announcements are never actuals, or averages, but always maximums attainable only if the machines were working twenty-four hours a day at full capacity in ideal winds. Consequently, the numbers trotted out for saving so many tons of carbon dioxide are always grotesquely inflated; and so are the figures for the numbers of trees that would otherwise have to be planted, and for the homes that each turbine can safely run. It is generally wise to discount the given pronouncements by at least 50 percent, perhaps more. Nor is wind power saving consumers any money. Nor, indeed, are they yet making any money for their operators, except via state subsidies.
On subsidies, though, both sides are right. Wind power is getting government aid, but then it is also true that the oil, gas, and especially the nuclear industry have collectively received subsidies far greater than the total cost of building all the wind plants so far operating in the world.
And on pricing, it is true that wind's prices are competitive with fossil fuels, taking into account those subsidies. With these further advantages: no price spikes by nasty cartels, and no chance of running out of fuel. And the chance either to get off grid and be independent, something that appeals to environmentalists and conservatives alike, or to make a little money selling power to the distribution companies, something to appeal to the small-business person with entrepreneurial instincts. For example, early in 2004, two privately owned turbines were operating in Maine. One, operated by Larry Beaulieu, of Beaulieu in Madawaska, Aroostok County, sold its power to Maine Public Power. It was a tiny 0.05 megawatts. The other was the same size, owned by G. M. Allen and Sons of Deer Island, and powered their own blueberry farm.28
In all the places where wind power is opposed, the arguments are similar. They are ugly. They despoil pristine places and beautiful landscapes. They are being built in the wrong places ("here"). They destroy property values and drive away tourists. They are land hungry. They are noisy and dangerous. They put wildlife at risk. They are too expensive anyway and we should be looking for other technologies. They are intermittent and can't be relied on, and therefore ensure that fossil-fuel or nuclear plants would have to be retained as the main generators.
It can be difficult, at times, to pick a valid argument out of the white noise that contaminates the debate, with its wild claims that whales will crash into offshore turbines, that fishing grounds will be destroyed, that dead birds will litter the beaches, that bats die in great numbers near them, even that horses bolt when they hear them, a curiously nineteenth-century argument. Bird kill is a major issue—the turbines are called pole-mounted Cuisinarts by the antis (this claim was started by a California group, which called one of the Altamont turbines a "Condor Cuisinart"). Some of these reports are doubtless true, if exaggerated. It's also true that more birds are killed by guyed towers, which are much less visible to avian eyes but much more prevalent in the landscape, and more than six times as many are killed by domestic cats every week as are killed in a year by all the wind farms put together. (For the record, the actual kill rate for a turbine is 0.2 birds per turbine per year.) Ordinary high-rises kill more birds than that.
The only argument against wind power that has any real merit is that it is, by definition, intermittent and can't be relied on, and therefore we have to keep a substantial investment in fossil-fuel or nuclear-generating plants as backups when the wind fails. Wind power's proponents answer that wind power is not intended to be a stand-alone technology. Allan Moore, chairman of the British Wind Energy Association and head of renewables at a company called National Wind Power, agrees that a mix of technologies will be necessary. Still, he told The Guardian, wind is far more advanced than the others. "If in 30 years time someone comes up with something better, we'll take the turbines away." This is not very difficult. A decommissioned turbine can be taken away, and will leave behind only a very small sign of its former presence. Wind power, then, is part of a basket of solutions that include solar power, biomass fuels, tidal and current harnessing, as well as conservation. (The idea of harnessing the awesome power of the moving water of the ocean's currents, especially the mighty Gulf Stream, has been seriously proposed. It has some advantages over tidal power, since it is constant and not intermittent; the Gulf Stream is only a few miles off the Florida shore, where it is moving at a rapid 2.4 miles an hour. Surveys have shown that 400 to 850 gigawatts of energy are plausible from this source, enough to cover the needs of several states. Indirectly, this is wind power too, since ocean currents are wind-driven.) 29
The argument about wind's intermittent nature also ignores the interesting possibility of hydrogen technology. As Vijay Vaitheeswaran puts it, "In the long term, the world will get its hydrogen directly from renewable energy, whether from the wind or the sun, by electrolysis of water. Once produced, hydrogen would also be used as a form of energy storage. Power generated whenever the wind blows can be stored as hydrogen and sold into the power grid when needed, which would revolutionize the way electricity trading is done, since electricity is one of the few commodities that cannot be stored easily, but must be used as soon as produced."30
Moreover, the argument that you can't work around the intermittent nature of wind, or that if you could it would be pointless to do so, rather leaves out the case of Denmark, which already gets 27 percent of its energy from renewables, almost all wind, against a target-to-date of 20 percent. On windy days, the capacity often goes up to 50 percent in the western part of the country. Curiously, this causes problems of its own, quite the reverse of the "how are we going to burn our toast if the wind doesn't blow" conundrum. The problem, rather, is an oversupply.
It arises because much of the rest of Denmark's generating capacity comes from coal-fired thermal generators. These are relatively inflexible—slow to fire up, slow and expensive to spin down. Under normal loads, there is always need for a reserve of backup power; this reserve is usually about 20 percent, or in the Danish case, about the size of the single largest coal-fired plant. It is used to balance the variations in the wind output, and to counterbalance the minute by minute variations in demand. But what to do with overcapacity, or oversupply? What the Danes do is offload the surplus to neighboring Norway, whose generating system is 99 percent hydro, which is fairly easy and relatively cheap to spin down. Norway takes the surplus, relieving the pressure on the Danish system.
It all comes down to costs. But how to measure the true costs? By annual revenues accruing to operators? By tax revenues forgone? Or by some more indirect measurement? What are the true costs of building turbines in pristine places? Costs to the serenity of the environment, to scenic beauty, to quality of life? To the value of privately owned land that abuts wind farms? What are the costs of not building them? How to measure the costs to the environment of not heading off climate change and global warming if we can?
"You can't have your cake and eat it too." Gary Gallon, who writes a newsletter for the Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment, cheerfully trots out the cliche. "You can't say no coal, no oil-fired electricity, unless you can provide an alternative, more benign energy source."
As Elinor Burkett put it: "To [environmentalists] the national illusion that you can have electricity, clean air, a stable climate and independence from foreign oil without paying a steep price is ludicrous. In fact, in late April , part of the price Cape Cod is already paying began washing up on its shores. En route to a power plant in Sandwich, on the northwest corner of the Cape, a leaking barge spilled 98,000 gallons of oil into Buzzards Bay. Shellfish beds were closed for a month. At least 370 birds died; 93 miles of coastline were tainted by thick globs of black oil."31
None of the windpower proponents could be caught saying "I told you so." They are far too media savvy for that. But an undercurrent of complacency nevertheless crept into their communications afterward. They clearly felt that the dirty calculus of industrialization would continue to do their work for them, providing for the contemplation of the electorate endless evil examples of pollution and degradation of the environment. After a while—you could hear them thinking—we won't have to sell wind power anymore. Its need will become self-evident.