Who has stolen the wind

Wind turbineA little part of me has always worried that solar and wind power aren’t quite all they’re cracked up to be — that if we made the technological leaps necessary to get enough energy out of them to seriously start replacing fossil fuels, we’d find there are lots of unforeseen negative effects.

Sure, the sun and the wind are “renewable,” but the idea of generating large amounts of power from them depends on thinking similar to that which underlies smokestacks and untreated sewage. The planet’s air and the oceans are just such utterly vast things with so many systems for self-filtering and -repair, how could they even slightly notice the stuff we put into them? (Or, in the case of mighty rivers, what we take out.)

The same, I fret, might happen with the sun and the wind, and I’m not just talking about the physical danger of birds smacking into churning windmill blades in midflight. Imagine the long-term effect of using windmills to pull ever-increasing amounts of energy out of these natural systems. It’s utterly intuitive, if not actually supported by any direct research I’m aware of, that there’d be knock-on effects we can’t predict.

Economist’s View points to a Der Spiegel story about a German businessman who wants to set up a wind farm … directly upwind of another wind farm some other people have been operating for a while. Apparently this is a growing legal problem in Germany, where wind farms are pretty common.

Sometimes the dispute only arises once the wind turbine is in operation. For example, a court in Münster has found that a neighboring turbine can cause damage that isn’t even measured in kilowatts. The plaintiff claimed that a new wind farm upstream had been passing on the wind in irregular quantities. The air turbulence, he claimed, caused his own rotors to vibrate — and his turbines to totter dangerously.

If one wind farm can slow the wind enough to have significant effects next door, the birds and the insects and, I imagine, the local weather systems are going to notice, too.

I’m just saying nothing is as easy or as harmless as it looks, is all.

Photo credit: “Wind turbine,” Flickr/Lepti

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5 responses to “Who has stolen the wind

  1. Yuck.

    I have wondered if making enough wind power would change the environment… but I didn’t imagine it happening at such a small and crowded scale that people would be blocking each other. In fact, I didn’t imagine wind power being ever big enough to matter.

    Then along came 2007…

  2. I wonder whether smaller-scale generation might help — whether there might be a significant difference between a wind farm with a bunch of 50-foot turbines versus a neighbourhood with a small windmill on each roof.

  3. Good question? I had not considered ‘stealing someone’s wind’ in relation to wind farms although it is common in sailing – where your right of way is determined by you are upwind from other boats.

    It touches on another thought I have been mulling over. There is that pro-nuclear/clean-coal argument that maintains that wind (and solar) do not provide base-load power. I sort of agree; maybe not now, but global warming is predicted to increase wind-speed. So perhaps we should be looking out for point where the carbon that we have de-sequestered and belched it into our atmosphere will reach the right level to balance the energy our wind-powered energy economies draw out the natural systems.

  4. I mean ‘Good question!’.

  5. I think the real obstacle to using wind turbines for base-load power isn’t that there’s not enough wind, but not enough ground to place all the windmills. If a really large windmill generates three or four megawatts under good conditions, you’d need a hundred of them to replace one small coal plant, and they have to be placed well apart to keep them from interfering with each other’s air currents.

    I guess — keeping in mind I’m not an engineer — if the wind blew hard enough, you might be able to put the windmills closer together and pack more of them into little enough territory to be viable, but wind blowing hard enough probably isn’t something we want to see.

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