Thursday, December 21, 2006

Before You Give Your Spouse a New Windmill...

In recent years, the major leap forward in windmill technology has to do with the huge windmills found on windmill farms. But there's been a market for smaller windmills for homeowners. It's not clear, though, whether the bugs are out of these things yet or not. And if you get one, your neighbors may petition City Hall to get rid of it. But things may be changing. Adam Vaughan of the British Guardian Unlimited has a long article on wind power, large and small:
So, if all's finally going right for large-scale wind, what's wrong with its domestic counterpart? One problem is turbulence: in urban areas, buildings, trees and other urban furniture obstruct the wind.

The result is erratic wind speeds, and most home turbines simply aren't designed for that. "Home turbines are definitely not ready for the mainstream," says Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity. "The current crop suffers from the same fundamental problem of design. They are horizontal-axis machines which work well in open areas but are unsuited to urban areas due to the way they need to rotate to track changing wind directions - called hunting."

Some suggest the problem is the quality of the turbines being sold through utility companies and B&Q. Keith Hall, editor of the Green Building Press, describes them as "not a first generation, but the cheapo generation". He stresses that he has a turbine installed at home and thinks wind is a viable way of generating power, provided companies "don't sell crappy machines".

Vaughan's article briefly mentions a stadium that plans to install a large commercial windmill. I'm not sure I understand what they have in mind and wish I knew more. Candlestick Park in San Francisco (under whatever name the latest corporation is paying for) is famous for its winds. But how would it work? Would they put the windmill in the parking lot? With plenty of room underneath for cars? Those things can be noisy. Would they turn it off during games? I don't know whether to take it seriously, laugh or just scratch my head. But it's an idea.

In the meantime, let's hope some thoughtful entrepreneur thinks of a way for consumers to get useful power out of a windmill designed for a smaller scale. I don't know about using these things in cities, but I know a few semi-rural areas with plenty of wind.

Of course, there are plenty of things consumers can buy to save on their energy bills. Solar panels, passive water heaters and insulation are very effective and easier for now on the neighbors. And it would be good if any number of political entities would get rid of the rules against that classic energy-efficient clothes dryer: the clothesline.

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