development to continue, we will ultimately need to find sources of renewable or virtually
inexhaustible energy. It's difficult to imagine this, but even if we find several hundred
or even thousand years of coal and natural gas supplies, what will humans do for the next
250,000 years or so after they are depleted?
Even the most apparently "inexhaustible" sources like fusion involve the
generation of large amounts of waste heat -- enough to place damaging stress on even a robust
ecosystem like Earth's, at least for the organisms that depend upon stability of the
system to survive.
We are engaged in
a sort of world-wide biological experiment, with our descendents as the subjects. Our
present habits of energy use are shaping an entirely different earth than the one with
which we are familiar. When these changes begin to be expressed, there will be no one to
preserve the familiar and there's no guarantee that things will turn out the best for our
particular species. Some have looked ahead and seen this. But they usually don't get much
support from societies that are too busy trying to "make do" and that are rushing backwards
into the future -- in other words, virtually every society on earth.
One of the areas
that suffers because of this backward thinking is the development of renewable energy
sources -- and the topic of this section: Wind Energy Conversion.
There's a lot of
underlying popular support for wind energy and the other renewables in the United States.
But there's also a lot of apathy as well. We are blissfully sedated by low
conventional energy prices and are gulping down the few remaining years of cheap natural
gas and Middle East oil, and more expensive fracked oil and gas. As we do this, the inertia of
atmospheric modification and climate change is inexorably building.
What drives the
of mechanical devices like wind turbines in the face of this widespread
lack of support? In the case of wind turbine technology, I suspect that part of the reason
for persistence of this vision is how accessible wind turbines are to the understanding. They are
personal in a way that almost no other form of power generation is.
scale has been both the blessing and the curse of wind power development. The field tends
to attract people who are committed, creative, and passionate. It also attracts
a few people who
are a little too much of all of those things, to the point that sometimes the grounding of
reality is lost. Both of these tendencies will be evident in this brief history of wind
power development. Wind power is more likely to succeed now that its proponents
have banked the fires of "Romance" and focused on defining
wind generation's role as a practical alternative to conventional generation sources.
But the question now is: will it be enough?
Wind energy conversion is a
fascinating field to study, if only because its past has been so checkered and its exact
future is so uncertain. Unlike the aerospace industry, the computer industry, and almost
any other successful industry you can name, wind energy -- the leading mechanically-based
renewable energy for much of man's history -- has never made anyone rich for long. But
unlike many of these other industries, it has been around for thousands of years. It's a
technology that has been reinvented numerous times. We are left with the promise and the
drive to succeed despite daunting (and sometimes puzzling) obstacles.
NEXT: Early History