Windfall: Wind Energy in America Today

Windfall: Wind Energy in America Today

by Robert W. Righter

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Not long ago, energy experts dismissed wind power as unreliable and capricious. Not anymore. The industry has arrived, and the spinning blades of this new kid on the electric power block offer hope for a partial solution to our energy problems by converting nature’s energy into electricity without exposing  our planet and its inhabitants to the dangers


Not long ago, energy experts dismissed wind power as unreliable and capricious. Not anymore. The industry has arrived, and the spinning blades of this new kid on the electric power block offer hope for a partial solution to our energy problems by converting nature’s energy into electricity without exposing  our planet and its inhabitants to the dangers of heat, pollution, toxicity, or depletion of irreplaceable natural resources. Windfall tells the story of this extraordinary transformation and examines the arguments both for and against wind generation.

In Windfall, Robert W. Righter explains how wind is transformed into energy and examines the land-use decisions that affect the establishment of new wind farms. The book also discusses the role of tax credits and other government subsidies in the creation of transmission systems between the turbines and end users in cities.

Currently the world’s fastest-growing source of energy, wind generation has also given rise to backlash. A critical advocate of wind energy whose career as a historian has focused on environmental controversies, Righter addresses the cultural dimensions of resistance to wind energy and makes considered predictions about the directions wind energy may take. His sympathetic treatment of opposing arguments regarding landscape change, unwanted noise, bird deaths, and human medical implications are thought-provoking, as is his recommendation that we place the lion’s share of turbines on the Great Plains.

Most books on wind energy are technical manuals. Righter’s book does not shy away from scientific explanations, but he does not write for engineers. His broad, historically informed vision will appeal to policy makers at the federal, state, and local levels and to anyone interested in a technology increasingly significant to supplying America’s energy needs.

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Wind Energy in America Today

By Robert W. Righter


Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8283-4


How Have We Used Wind and Electricity?

The free benefit of the wind ought not to be denied to any man. —Herbert of Bury, Suffolk, circa 1180

Some years ago when I first began studying the history of wind energy, I visited the manager of a Palm Springs wind farm (San Gorgonio Pass) to ask a few questions. I told him I was writing the history of wind energy from 1880 to 1980. He replied, with a certain assurance, "Why would you want to do that? Nothing happened before 1980." In a sense he was correct, for the huge turbines and wind farms that dot the landscape today did not exist before 1980. On the other hand, he was like a county commissioner I knew who announced as he grew older that if he couldn't remember it, it did not happen. His perspective of history was rather skewed, and so was that of my wind energy manager. When we view today's wind turbines, we have difficulty comprehending the past. The turbines seem too modern to have a meaningful precedent. Yet, although the technology may seem unrecognizable, the concept of employing the wind to get work done is as old as human civilization.


To understand something of that past is to have a greater appreciation for the present. Humans have come a long way in our understanding and use of the wind, and this initial chapter provides an idea of the dynamic present by reviewing the distant past. To look first at the energy source: the wind is a function of the relation of the earth and the sun. Wind is a form of solar energy, created when sun-heated air rises and cooler air rushes in to fill the vacuum. In the millions of years of prehistory it accomplished remarkable work. Erosion, which is responsible for much of the land's appearance, is often been attributed to water and ice, but the wind is a significant player too. In the American West, where natural forces are so evident, weathered mushroom-shaped sandstone hoodoo towers, such as at Bryce Canyon, attest to the never-ending work of the wind. Immense concave valleys, as represented by the Laramie Plains in Wyoming, give evidence of its power and longevity. Flying over the West one observes the wrinkled land, the upthrust pinnacles, flat mesas, and broad sagebrush-covered valleys; a forbidding land all shaped by the wind and its cohort, water. One geologist credits the wind with the "exhumation of the Rockies." Now we are determined to capture that same wind, put it to our use, and then release it to continue its movement and its work.

The relationship of wind to human beings is complex, and freighted with mythology. Myths about the origins of things abound among peoples throughout the world. My favorite myth is the Greek story of Odysseus, Homer's hero and wanderer of the Ionian and Aegean seas. On one of his sailing adventures Odysseus received from the god Aeolus, keeper of the winds, a wineskin containing contrary winds. Aeolus warned Odysseus not to untie the wineskin, but of course his curious crew mates did so. An enraged Aeolus stilled the wind, forcing Odysseus and his crew to row their ship on calm seas for six days. "No breeze, no help in sight, by our own folly—six indistinguishable nights and days," lamented Odysseus.

The story of Odysseus and Aeolus reminds us that the historic importance of the wind is linked to exploration. Sail power was the only method to negotiate vast stretches of the globe's oceans and seas. For thousands of years human discovery, conquest, and trade all relied on sailing ships. From ancient times to the middle of the nineteenth century, the bubbling wakes and billowing sails of thousands of ships tell the story of commerce and conquest. With the exception of oared boats—rarely used for long voyages—there was no other power source available. For better or worse, trade, migration, and the exploration and conquest of the world were all dependent on a human partnership with the wind.

When did this alliance begin? Definitive answers are lost in antiquity, but anthropologist Geoffrey Irwin believes that Asians migrated as far as Australia using crude sailing boats some forty thousand years ago. No artifacts have survived, but Irwin remains convinced that Asians explored and settled Australia by means of "voyaging corridors" of no more than one hundred kilometers between land points. Much later, around 1500 b.c.e., Polynesian peoples colonized many Pacific islands, using catamaran sailing craft of forty to fifty feet in length. Without any identifiable technology these deepwater navigators demonstrated a remarkable knowledge of winds and tides. In the Mediterranean region, water transportation was not so sophisticated. The Egyptians, a river people, had developed graceful sailing boats called feluccas by 3100 b.c.e. Some feluccas were quite large and were used for transporting cut granite from upriver to the Cairo area for pyramid building. They floated slowly down on the river current and then used the prevailing northern winds to return to the Luxor quarries. Feluccas still ply the Nile today, often in pursuit of tourist dollars.

This remarkable use of wind power over many centuries has largely disappeared, replaced by steam and diesel engines. Sailing today is a sport or leisure activity, although smaller sailing ships do still ply the seas, and inventors are experimenting with sailing rigs to give an energy assist to large ocean-going vessels. In Germany a company called SkySails is designing and developing a sail that resembles a giant paraglider. Using electronic controls and an automatic retraction system, the sail can range from 100 to 300 meters in the air to catch winds high above the water surface. The company expects a ship equipped with its sail to consume 10 to 35 percent less oil than usual. In January 2008 the first large "sail ship," the MS Beluga Skysails, departed northern Germany for Venezuela, arriving in the middle of March. It then continued to the United States and eventually to Norway. When the "kite" was in use, the ship saved 10 to 15 percent in fuel, or $1,000 to $1,500 per day, the pre-industrial energy source of the wind being combined with modern fossil fuel to create an innovative hybrid.

Terrestrial Use

The first terrestrial use of wind is likewise hidden in history. When did the first windmill turn and begin the centuries-long harvest of wind power? One historian who explored the question confessed that such hidden knowledge "is beset with false trails and episodic detours." Supposedly, Hero of Alexandria, a Greek naturalist, constructed a small windmill, providing power to play an organ; if true, this classifies as play rather than work. Not until the tenth century do we have evidence of windmills at work, and that was in the blustery Seistan region of Persia (Iraq). Their turning technology would not be familiar to Europeans. They used sails made of reeds, the sails following a carousel's path around a vertical axis. The Persians employed them to grind corn and wheat or to raise water for irrigation purposes. With time this technology spread east to India, other parts of the Muslim world, and China.

In Europe a different kind of windmill evolved, and it is from the postmill that our huge turbines of today trace their ancestry. William of Almoner, of Leicester, England, erected the first known post-mill in 1137, almost certainly prompted by studying the mechanics of the popular waterwheel. Historian Terry Reynolds suggests that "very likely the invention of the Western vertical windmill was inspired by the widely used vertical waterwheel." The post-mill quickly spread throughout England and then to Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, the German principalities, and the Italian states. As these post-mills multiplied in number and grew in size and technical innovation, they took on a different appearance. Frequently the tower-mill replaced the postmill. The former featured a four-bladed wheel mounted on a swiveling cap, set atop a stationary tower. The Dutch in particular adopted the tower-mill, which has become synonymous with that nation and is still a national icon. At one point eight hundred to a thousand tower-mills served the power needs of Amsterdam. They pumped water, ground grain, powered sawmills and paper plants, and performed many other rotary tasks. What is most interesting, however, is the cultural acceptance of the windmill. The brightly painted Dutch mills, according to one historian, were often the artistic centerpiece of a village. The mill was commonly a place of public gathering, sometimes for wakes and mourning, sometimes for celebration with the mill draped in "brightly coloured flags and garlands." As we debate the appropriateness of today's huge turbines, we might reflect on the marriage of windmills and culture in Holland. The windmill seemed to express an underlying harmony for the village and a harmony with nature as well. For residents, the mill represented an aesthetic addition to the community; an enhancement to the landscape.

Egalitarian Nature

An aspect of medieval windmills that is often overlooked is their egalitarian nature. Neither solar energy nor wind energy can be controlled by any person or corporation. They are free energy sources, open to all who can figure out how to utilize them. This certainly is one of the principal reasons why windmills thrived in England. Water power was strictly controlled. In England the clergy and the landed gentry owned the streams. Under English common law these riparian owners received all legal rights to the water. Landowners not bordering streams or rivers had no rights. Thus in twelfth-century England, riparian owners controlled the only power source for grain mills, a monopoly no peasant could avoid. These owners had cornered the market, much as the nineteenth-century American railroad companies had control of transportation, charging farmers prohibitive rates to get their crops to market.

One case may illustrate the point. After William of Almoner's post-mill appeared, others followed. Small entrepreneurial farmers owned many of these mills. A farmer named Herbert and his two sons erected a post-mill in the late 1180s. Unfortunately, Herbert had not counted on Abbot Samson, a cleric whose monastery contained a profitable watermill nearby. When he heard of Herbert's windmill, the red-bearded cleric flew into a rage, determined to squelch any competition. He ordered his carpenters to tear down Herbert's windmill. In a desperate plea Herbert won an audience, and during their heated exchange, Herbert proclaimed that "the free benefit of the wind ought not to be denied to any man." His profound statement did no good. Although he promised to grind only his own grain, political power was not on Herbert's side. Abbot Samson did not claim he owned the wind, but he did insist that he had jurisdiction over what could be built within the region. He could, in effect, determine land-use zoning. Samson again ordered that Herbert's mill be destroyed, but before his men could accomplish the task, Herbert's sons dismantled the postmill. Since this farmer's time the idea of the wind as a free energy source has been a compelling attraction. "The free benefit of the wind" has been a lure for creative entrepreneurs. The story of Herbert provides a wonderful example of how nature does not play favorites, dispensing this energy source without consideration of human class or needs.

Throughout American history independent farmers and ranchers have erected windmills for domestic water use and also to make arid ranch land usable. By tapping ground water, these agrarians became independent of surface streams, which were often controlled by large ranching interests. Settlers' satisfaction in using a free, abundant source of energy had little to do with environmental concerns and more to do with Benjamin Franklin's dictum: "Waste not, want not." Wind energy has always been associated with individual freedom. Many people savor independence from centralized power, whether it relates to government, religion and spiritual life, or energy. In our contemporary world, energy self-reliance often means freedom from a utility company. Seeing a windmill turning provided an undeniable satisfaction to the owner, for the fuel was free. No wonder the American windmill became an icon of independence and freedom, and small wonder that today thousands of landowners continue the tradition of independent, decentralized electrical production.

The focus of this study is the big commercial wind turbines, but we ought not to forget the thousands upon thousands of small turbine owners, who, like Herbert, simply want a modest, simple, reliable power producing turbine that gives them the satisfaction of independence. For Herbert and his family, being free of Samson would surely make life more enjoyable. Essentially, they wanted no part of the restriction and injustice that came from a powerful institution. Today, there are many Americans like Herbert. In chapter 8, "Small Turbines and Appropriate Technology," I examine this aspect of wind energy.

Windmills Spread

Small post-mills, then, quickly crossed the English Channel to thrive in France, Spain, the German states, and Denmark. Their spread was synonymous with rising protests against lordly monopoly. As a European historian put it, the windmills were "established in the conditions of freedom that opened with the growth of cities, and established a further breach in the lords' energy monopolies." The work that windmills accomplished had profound social consequences. The eminent medieval historian Lynn White believed that "the chief glory of the later Middle Ages was not its cathedrals or its epics of its scholasticism; it was the building for the first time in history of a complex civilization which rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies but primarily on non-human power." White underscores an idea we often forget: options expanded in the world of work and energy, and windmills were part of that revolution. By the late nineteenth century workers had erected approximately one hundred thousand windmills across Europe. And according to Lewis Mumford, "the greatest technical progress came about in regions that had abundant supplies of wind and water." Thus the basic technology of the windmill as a tool of energy may be found in pre-industrial Europe. Furthermore, the consequence of spinning windmills was immense. They harnessed power and accomplished work, and in the process they freed human beings from drudgery.

Coming to America

As thousands of colonists came to settle the Atlantic seaboard of North America, the windmill accompanied them, but only in a limited way. The European windmill was too large, cumbersome, and expensive to survive, let alone thrive. It required constant human attention, and in this new environment labor was scarce, even if land was abundant. Although colonists erected a few windmills in Jamestown, New Amsterdam (New York), and the Cape Cod area, they depended primarily on water power. The colonists used wind power at sea, of course, but on land it was human and animal labor, wood, and water that got things done.

Clearly the physical environment determined how early American settlers from Europe might meet their energy needs. It was in the American West that wind energy eventually found a significant role. West of the hundredth meridian the wind was strong, and frequently destructive. It was often a topic of conversation, rarely in a positive way. Ever-present winds knocked down trees, flattened gardens, blew off roofs, and carried off things that were not battened down. Tornados are still a source of terror in the Midwest. Less fearsome but more destructive were the 1930s Dust Bowl winds, which stripped the land of its soil and the people of their livelihood. Wind stories abound in the West. In Laramie, Wyoming, where I lived for fifteen years, that standing joke was that "one day the wind stopped blowing and everyone fell down." Just about every western town has a variation on that theme.

And yet the constant westerly winds did perform useful work. American windmills had several purposes. They provided water for homesteads, for livestock, and for the thirsty steam locomotives of the Union Pacific. They changed the western rangelands, creating stock wells and small vernal oases. Innovative Americans produced a great variety of styles and brands of windmills, which dotted the Great Plains. They all had certain characteristics in common. They were small, light, movable, self-regulating, and inexpensive. There is no way to estimate their numbers accurately, but some authorities have offered a figure of more than 6 million. Today some one hundred thousand of these mills continue their work; if you look closely, a little windmill is often still to be seen doing its job among the huge new wind turbines. Ranch windmills have become objects of nostalgia. They evoke an earlier, bucolic time, in part because they employ technology at what a majority of Americans perceive as an acceptable level of disruption to landscape and nature. They seem to complement rather than corrupt the scenery.


Excerpted from Windfall by Robert W. Righter. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert W. Righter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso and the author of several books on the history of environmentalism and conservation, including The Battle over Hetch Hetchy: American's Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism.

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