Less For More: The Rube Goldberg Nature of Industrial Wind Development

Rube Goldberg would admire the utter purity of the pretensions of wind technology in pursuit of a safer modern world, claiming to be saving the environment while wreaking havoc upon it. But even he might be astonished by the spin of wind industry spokesmen. Consider the comments made by the American Wind Industry Association.s Christina Real de Azua in the wake of the virtual nonperformance of California.s more than 13,000 wind turbines in mitigating the electricity crisis precipitated by last July.s .heat storm.. .You really don.t count on wind energy as capacity,. she said. .It is different from other technologies because it can.t be dispatched.. (84) The press reported her comments solemnly without question, without even a risible chortle. Because they perceive time to be running out on fossil fuels, and the lure of non-polluting wind power is so seductive, otherwise sensible people are promoting it at any cost, without investigating potential negative consequences-- and with no apparent knowledge of even recent environmental history or grid operations.

Eventually, the pedal of wishful thinking and political demagoguery will meet the renitent metal of reality in the form of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (85) and public resistance, as it has in Denmark and Germany. Ironically, support for industrial wind energy because of a desire for reductions in fossil-fueled power and their polluting emissions leads ineluctably to nuclear power, particularly under pressure of relentlessly increasing demand for reliable electricity. Environmentalists who demand dependable power generation at minimum environmental risk should take care about what they wish for, more aware that, with Rube Goldberg machines, the desired outcome is unlikely to be achieved. Subsidies given to industrial wind technology divert resources that could otherwise support effective measures, while uninformed rhetoric on its behalf distracts from the discourse.and political action-- necessary for achieving more enlightened policy.

Selected Extracts


Reuben Goldberg (1883-1970) was an American cartoonist famous for conceiving very complicated and impractical machines that accomplish little or nothing. The term .Rube Goldberg. has passed into the lexicon as shorthand for describing such machinery and their products and services. Contemporary industrial wind turbines epitomize this concept. Physically, they are taller than many skyscrapers, with 300-foot rotors that move nearly 200 miles per hour at their tips. They are usually placed in a phalanx numbering five to eight per mile, which, if erected on forested ridge tops, also require the clear-cutting of at least four acres per turbine, with another 35-65 acres needed for infrastructure support. Functionally, they produce little energy relative to demand and what little they do produce is incompatible with the standards of reliability and cost characteristic of our electricity system. Moreover, wind plants are unable either to mitigate the need for additional conventional power generation in the face of increased demand or to reliably augment power during times of peak demand. Ironically, as more wind installations are added, almost equal conventional power generation must also be brought on line. Crucially important, however, wind technology, because of the inherently random variations of the wind, will not reduce meaningful levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide produced from fossil-fueled generation, which is its raison d.etre.

To understand the limitations of wind technology, one should know how energy use enables complex modern society and, especially, how energy in the form of electricity is produced and transmitted to hundreds of millions of people on demand. Enormous energies are required to support the way Americans choose to live and work. Industrial modes of transportation and heating/ air conditioning technologies have made it possible for large numbers of people to live in regions historically limited to only the hardiest of souls, such as the swamplands of Florida and the ice of Alaska, while newer communication technologies have encouraged widespread development not only for residential suburbanites but commerce and industry as well. The majority of our energy use involves heating and transportation. Demand for electricity accounts for about 39 percent of this total, even though electricity accounts for 30 percent of the energy used for heating. (1) We increase both our demand for energy and for electricity at a rate of approximately two percent each year, nearly doubling our consumption every 30 years, as we did from 1970 through 2000. (2)

Electricity is the cleanest and most important form of industrial energy; its supply continuity is essential to enable and protect a vast range of services we often take for granted.modern hospitals, traffic controls, information storage and retrieval, entertainment, food storage, to name only a few. As the British engineer, David White, has written, .It is a truism that electrical power supply at a competitive cost underpins the world.s economies... (3)


Less For More

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DEC 20 2006
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