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Fascinating chronicle but already outdated

Wind Energy in America: A History, by environmental historian Robert Righter, was completed just before deregulation caused the bottom to fall out of the American wind market. Recent events need not necessarily colour the reader's view of history, but Righter's concluding sections are sure to spark a little sad nostalgia. His story of wind offers many good anecdotes while pursuing the book's primary mission: providing an historical backdrop to current events unfolding around the world.

Environmental historian Robert Righter of the University of Texas at El Paso has put together a comprehensive history of wind power in the United States. It was completed just before the uncertainty associated with deregulating the business of power supply and generation caused the bottom to fall out of the American wind market. Recent events need not necessarily colour the reader's view of history, but Righter's concluding sections are sure to spark a little sad nostalgia. At the same time, his treatment of the story of wind offers many good anecdotes while pursuing the book's primary mission: providing an historical backdrop to current events unfolding around the world.

Though Righter entitles his book Wind Energy in America: A History, he does travel to Europe and elsewhere to trace the roots of the modern wind industry. One of the most fascinating facts Righter tells his readers is that the major impetus for the development of windmills in Europe came from the activities of the king of England as well as the Roman Catholic Pope, who vested riparian water rights in a select few. Securing the rights to waterways was critical to early efforts to generate power since giant water wheels were used to crush grains. Those who owned the rights essentially had a monopoly on power supply and could charge large fees to struggling farmers and other citizens seeking mechanical power.

These water monopolies, claims Righter, led to the introduction of the English post-windmill, the first one being erected in 1137 AD. Entrepreneurs realised that though the water rights were the property of the lords, the wind was free. "Brash independents -- clever peasants, knights dissatisfied with their small fiefs, university-trained intellectuals, and women anxious to support themselves -- soon built their own rival mills," notes Righter, quoting Edward Kealy's book Harvesting the Air.

Righter then quickly moves to the New World. Among the more interesting snippets is the story of the "wind wagon," contraptions -- Righter acknowledges -- that lie somewhere between reality and Western myths. "Early travellers on the Great Plains often found the ocean a convenient analogy to describe the treeless, expansive and often level land, and since pioneers had sailed across the oceans of the world, why not sail on the prairie?" Righter notes that in 1860 one such pioneer -- Samuel Peppard -- built a 350 pound wind wagon shaped like a boat, but with wheels. The unique transport device featured two sails and apparently carried Peppard and two cohorts a distance of 500 miles before a whirlwind lifted the vessel 20 feet into the air before dropping it back to earth and breaking the rear axle!

Righter goes on to chronicle the more familiar history of America's water pumping mills, including several photos of these pioneering machines, and describes how the development of the pumpers led to evolution of the first electricity generating wind machines, including one invention used to mine silver.

Among the highlights of the book are the following: the story of Charles Brush's 80,000 pound electric generator featuring a 60 foot tower and 144 blades erected in 1888; the first commercial wind energy conversion system offered by New York's Lewis Electric Company in 1893; Texan Dew Oliver's "blunderbuss," a ten ton, 70 foot wind tunnel he set up in California's San Gorgonio Pass; how the Rural Electric Association helped kill an infant wind industry in the 1930s; the erection of a 2 kW Jacobs wind turbine in 1976 on the roof of a New York City apartment complex and the first modern sales of wind generated electricity to an electric utility.

Indeed the first two thirds of the book are a smooth narrative written in historical style. In contrast, the last third deals mainly with the present and includes endorsements of wind technology while venturing into the realm of advocacy journalism and contemporary story telling. Compared with the earlier section, these last chapters lurch a little awkwardly and feel choppy and hurried. Nice anecdotes about the politics surrounding the passage of California's tax credit are more effective than a reciting of statistics showing improving wind turbine performance -- at least for those already involved in the wind industry.

Righter concludes by noting the start of discussions about deregulation. He is no fan of markets. "Although market forces are, in themselves, amoral, the result of leaving events to their direction is that activity flows to the cheapest, most profitable means of energy production, without consideration for the environment or the future," states Righter. It is an epilogue already out-of-date now that deregulation is a reality and, if done right, is set to boost wind power.

Wind Energy in America: A History by Robert W. Righter, University of Oklahoma Press; ISBN: 0-8061-2812-7.

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