Over a hundred years ago, transportation for more than a mile or two meant saddling your horse, if you needed groceries and supplies at the store, you hitched up a wagon to carry the load and longer trips to another town might mean taking the buggy. Horses were fine because there were no alternatives, but in a very few years after the car was invented, horses became a hobby. Today, they may still give their owners a great deal of pleasure and some are certainly beautiful to look at, but anyone suggesting we again start riding horses to work and taking the buggy on business trips, would be treated as an eccentric, … or worse.
Making power the modern wayOddly enough, we’ve traveled a similar path generating power. Man used water power, wind power and animal muscle power since the beginning of recorded history, and like horses, they all served well because nothing better was available. Steam engines, invented many years earlier, were greatly improved in the 1700s thanks to James Watt which led to their widespread use, literally driving the industrial revolution with their ability to create mechanical motion, especially rotary motion, which powered the great machines of industry. When Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction in the early 1800s, it led to the invention of early rotary generators and electric motors.
When these two inventions, the steam engine and rotary generator were combined by Thomas Edison at the Pearl Street Station in New York City in 1882, the modern world was born with the world’s first central electric power station. It was immediately recognized as such an enormous advance over all previous methods for delivering power that by 1890, just 8 years later, there were over 1000 central power stations in the United States.
The new wind believers forget the past
So it comes as a combination of surprise and disappointment, that we’re now being inundated with a new wave of advocates for “modern” wind energy. Maybe building these monster wind turbines with the latest materials makes some people believe the wind is no longer as intermittent and ever changing as it always has been. Perhaps these new wind enthusiasts have found a magic switch that allows them to turn the wind on and off at will, because the reason we quit using it those many years ago was our modern world can’t depend on it. We need constant, always on electricity, something the wind can never supply.
Things that work or things that sound good
Unfortunately, in the real world, replacing things that work with things that sound good rarely ends well. As the reality of wind power settles in and people begin to relearn the lessons we already learned over a century ago, how costly and unreliable wind energy really is compared to central power stations, advocates respond saying the wind hasn’t been given a chance, that somehow “modern” wind energy is in its infancy after thousands of years of history. They’ll tell you it’s different now, it’s new, it’s green, … but it’s really just old and tired.
If you like romantic stories of running the whole world on wind, you may be the kind of person who would rather ride a horse to work and take a buggy on a business trip. Though most of the rest of us have moved far beyond that fantasy there are always a few that just won’t let go. Which kind of person are you?