Wind Power -- a European Success Story

As we saw in the last installment on wind power, wind turbines are neither dangerous for birds, nor is wind power more expensive than the fossil competition. However, there remain two common bones of contention, both of which we can disprove: Wind turbines are said to be loud and ugly.

Ever stood under a modern wind turbine turning full-blast? You may not be able to hear it, if the leaves in nearby trees are rustling. Several advances were made around 1990 to make wind turbines quieter. First, the rotor blades were slowed down, for the tips of the rotor blades are one of the main sources of noise. This did not, however, mean that less power was generated. More power is generally generated at lower speeds when 3 rotor blades rather than only 2 are used, but the major advance came when rotor blades were developed with adjustable pitch. Rotor blades can now be turned into and out of the wind, allowing for more optimal rotor speeds at various wind velocities -- hence greater power gains.

Another major breakthrough came in 1992 from Germany. Enercon developed a gearless wind turbine that was more robust, powerful and quiet than anything before, the E-40. Noise and energy losses from gears were now a thing of the past. And the industry was increasingly centered in Europe.

Today, you can’t hear a modern wind turbine near a street over the noise from the traffic -- and that has been the case for many years, as the web site of the Danish Wind Industry Association explains:

"A survey on research and development priorities of Danish wind turbine manufacturers conducted in 1995, however, showed that no manufacturer considered mechanical noise as a problem any longer, and therefore no further research in the area was considered necessary. The reason was, that within three years noise emissions had dropped to half their previous level due to better engineering practices."

Still, some people claim to be disturbed by an inaudibly deep droning said to emanate from wind turbines. In addition, the flickering shade caused by the rotating blades is another reason why wind turbines should not be erected where they would cast shadows on buildings. But modern wind turbines are so quiet that in densely populated countries like the Netherlands -- where on-shore space for wind turbines is dwindling -- new ways of integrating small wind turbines and architecture are being sought.

This is how researcher Sander Mertens of the Technical University of Delft (NL) envisions a university building with wind turbines on the roof. These vertical-axis "Darrieus" wind turbines turn irrespective of the direction of the wind.

Don’t expect to see any 60 meter tall wind turbines in the grachten of Amsterdam, but don’t be surprised either if you soon see smaller models popping up on the roofs of the town -- and producing more electricity over the year than the residents of the house consume. Indeed, discussions about such building-integrated systems are by no means limited to the Netherlands. Researchers from the University of Stuttgart in Germany and the British Rutherford Appleton Laboratory are designing buildings that concentrate the wind for the turbines. The first experiment models have already been built.

Esthetic and political decisions

The decision about whether wind power will make its way into urban centers will largely depend on how people react to the idea. And as the saying goes, there is no arguing about taste. Having said that, it is not at all clear that very many people find wind turbines unattractive. Quite the contrary, wherever one goes all over the world most people clearly seem to find wind turbines attractive: from Australia, where the turbine on the island of Rottnest could become a tourist attraction, to North America, where a recent study found that wind turbines do not have a negative impact on the value of nearby residential property (unlike high-voltage power pylons), to Europe, where various studies have shown that around 80 percent of those surveyed do not display an NIMBY attitude to planned wind farms, but openly welcome them. Even in the USA, a clear majority want to get their energy from renewable sources, as a survey conducted in February of 2003 in Colorado showed: A full 82 percent named some type of renewable energy first when asked how they wanted to have their power generated, with wind power being the most popular at 37 percent.


Now be honest: is the wind turbine really what you find unattractive in this photo? (Courtesy of the German Association of Wind Energy)

When deciding how close to live to wind parks, we should not be distracted by arguments that these towers are somehow not part of the traditional landscape or national heritage, as is often argued by detractors of wind power in Europe. Not only is this line of thinking quite rare even where it is advocated most vehemently, such as in the Black Forest, where five of seven people surveyed stated that they find wind turbines attractive in a recent survey. It is also generally nonsensical, such as in the case of the Black Forest, where roads and ski slops cut into the forest over the past 100 years have altered the landscape considerably. Acid rain from fossil-fuel pollution damaged the forest that remained so much that the term Waldsterben (forest death) was coined a few decades ago. And that is exactly the point: this "protect our heritage" line of thinking obscures that fact that the choice is not between pristine landscapes and monstrous wind towers, but rather between coal, crude, and Chernobyl, on the one hand, and clean energy and eternal energy independence, on the other. The only other option is an energy shortage.

Europe learns from America’s mistakes

In the 80s, the U.S. had over half of the installed wind capacity worldwide. The USA gradually lost its leadership when the cuts Ronald Reagan made to Jimmy Carter’s programs to develop renewable energy began to undo the initial progress. Throughout the 90s, continuing uncertainties in the government’s commitments to renewable energy have made investments in this budding industry a bit of a roller coaster ride; one year, federal support is good, but the next year hardly anyone is willing to invest as governmental support is reconsidered. Wind turbines can run for decades, so a stable investment plan has to be based on price commitments that last longer than a few years.

Such price commitments are why Denmark and Germany have made up so much ground since the early 1990s. The political commitment to wind power in Germany, for instance, crosses all parties: the current government is from the left (Social Democrats and Greens), but the government that first implemented price guarantees for wind power producers in 1990 was the right-of-center coalition under Helmut Kohl. Thirteen years later, these laws still apply. Unlike their American counterparts, German investors thus do not have to include governmental wavering in their risk assessment. Today, three fourths of the installed capacity worldwide is found in Europe. The U.S. cannot compete with Europeans any more when it comes to wind energy, which may be why there have been reports all over the German press of the U.S. using Echelon to steal wind technology from Germany: Enercon’s E-40, the best selling turbine of all time, cannot be sold in the U.S. because an American firm -- the now-bankrupt Kenetech Windpower Inc. -- filed a patent incredibly identical to the design of the E-40 before the Germans could bring their patent to the States.

It should be pointed out that, though Germany is now the number one producer of wind power, it hardly has good wind conditions; France and Great Britain, for instance, have much more potential, but less political support for wind power. Overall, Germany produced 18 percent more "green" power in 2002 than in the previous year. But while wind may blow and the sun may shine for free, the technology to harvest the power costs good money. More and more of it is not "Made in the USA."

Craig Morris writes for the German website Telepolis and directs Petite Planète Translations, which specializes in translations for new technologies. He gets all of his power from Greenpeace Energy, which any consumer in Germany can buy. By 2007, all EU countries will be offering power from "green" utilities.

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