These are the contentious themes of "Wind Energy Comes of Age" by Paul Gipe, the most wide-ranging book on wind in decades. It is the third by Gipe, well-known in the US industry after nearly two decades in wind consultancy, and one of a series of books on sustainable design by publisher John Wiley & Sons.
The 536-page hardback, published this spring, seems even more relevant now with the worsening slump in the US market, widespread market deregulation leading to increased competitiveness, and the continuing controversy about bird kills. Indeed the recent decision by Minnesota utility Northern Power Systems to select Zond Systems Inc and its untried 700 kW wind turbine for 100 MW of wind (see page 16) draws ire from the author. "This is a case where cost was focused on too highly," he says. "They have taken a very risky approach by ordering the construction of the largest wind plant ever built in the world with wind turbines that do not exist." He fiercely challenges the notion that price is everything. "It's tragically short-sighted," he says, adding that other factors are crucial for incorporating wind into the community.
Another theme of the book is that environmental issues are important in considering wind, which of course has impacts. Indeed almost two-thirds of the book is dedicated to environmental questions, with explanations of the origins and philosophies of "greens" and attempts to alert these environmentalists to wind's value. Elsewhere, he debunks myths that wind turbines are inherently ugly, the technology is land-intensive, wind energy will never make a difference, and is unreliable. Gipe estimates, too, the impact of wind on tourism, jobs, ability to meet residential electricity needs, its positive energy balance and help in reducing air pollution.
In clear language, he chronicles the growth of the technology from its rebirth during the oil crisis of the 1970s, though a troubling adolescence in California's mountain passes in the 80s, to its "maturation" in the northern plains of Europe in the 1990s. In 1995, global sales of wind power and wind turbines are expected to exceed $1.5 billion, he continues, a staggering accomplishment for a technology written off in the mid 1980s. Germany alone installed near as much wind capacity in 1994 as did California during the "wind rush" of the early eighties.
Five cent myth
Debunking what he describes as the "myth" of the five-cent windmill, Gipe is provocative but seems highly plausible. He maintains there is no proof -- the projects touted as that cheap have not been running long, performance data are not public, and using a more realistic method of calculating the cost of energy gives a higher figure of $0.075-0.083. Gipe says wind, however, remains half as cheap as nuclear and competitive with non-fossil fuel-fired plants -- without even considering decommissioning, modularity, social and environmental factors and cost of capital. But he quotes David Freeman, formerly of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, who warned of: "a fundamental conflict emerging between the headlong rush toward competition for price and price only and the needs of society to develop a sustainable energy economy."
Gipe marshals an astonishing array of evidence that questions the US government's federally-funded research and development. In a controversial chapter that is also unprecedented in its depth, he documents what he calls widespread waste. "After spending nearly ten times as much on R&D and 20 times as much on capital subsidies as Denmark, the United States generates only three times the energy," he writes. In short, nowhere more than America has so much been spent and so little gained. "Only a nation as rich as America could squander as much in public funds," he adds in an interview.
On incorporating wind into the community, he stresses that wind turbines can become as universally accepted as cars. Influential factors include a pace of development that is not too fast for a community, how people perceive wind's costs and making sure that benefits are shared, such as through the "enfranchisement" of wind power through co-operative ownership and by involving people in the planning process.
In the extensive sections on environment, Gipe notes that some bird kills are unavoidable, as they are with many human endeavours. "Éthere are costs to all energy choices," he writes. And he blasts attempts at damage control by wind firms rather than trying to mitigate the problem. He also argues that fears of public safety are virtually ungrounded, although they are not uncommon among regulators and planners.
Too many job deaths
On job safety he is hard hitting. Fourteen people have been killed directly or indirectly in the industry worldwide, while another four have been seriously injured, he says. (Nine of them died in construction related accidents.) He says that although wind's death rate is far lower than the accident rate of the general population, it seems disturbingly similar to that of the coal industry and higher than expected by risk analysts. The rate may not be representative now that the industry is mature. "Still, the wind industry, particularly in the United States, must do better," Gipe concludes.
Noise is the second-most common complaint after aesthetics. He notes that, because of fierce competition, Europeans have successfully made quieter turbines. Rotor speed can be reduced, a turbine operated at duel speeds, gearboxes redesigned, and so on. "Along with aesthetics, designing and installing quieter wind turbines must be given equal weight with engineering efficiency." But he also notes that wind turbines will always be audible -- especially to those who want to hear them. After discussing land impact and wind's various benefits, Gipe concludes even a sustainable development such as wind cannot be invisible.
In the final section, on wind's future, Gipe argues a change in thought is needed on how to structure power supply, from a paradigm based on large centrally produced energy to one reliant on dispersed intermittent resources. Utilities must understand wind can be integrated into their systems, with little cost except at higher penetrations, and that wind can be distributed, for bulk power and off-grid uses. Gipe notes, too, the appeal of electric cars powered with wind (indirectly), repowering California wind plants, and wind as a hybrid "mate." With possibilities such as "sustained orderly development," a field levelled by a clean energy trust that uses taxes levied on conventional fuels, and green pricing, he says that wind turbines can become "monuments to sustainability."