Niall McMahon

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The Social Network of Wind Energy


Wind is a key component of our present and future energy supply. Different stories about the technology are told for different reasons.

This draft essay is the basis of a lecture I was scheduled to deliver as part of the MSc in Consumer Psychology at NUIG on March 13th. My own position is, of course, pro-wind.

Stories about wind energy in the media are - often - variations of:

How is that ideas about wind turbines end up so polarised? It seems very strange to me. I mean, my take on wind turbines was informed by images of the American frontier and - I seem to remember? - picture books in the 1980s about the future. They were useful machines and a part of a future decentralised power grid. I liked wind turbines; they were a positive thing for the world but not a symbol for anything more.

At least, this is how I like to remember my limited childhood relationship with wind turbines. Wind turbines were not part of my everyday life back then.

Where to begin? Maybe a little history.

For most of humanity's existence, all the energy used to make things or transport things came from people, animals, and then, later, small-scale fire, rivers and the wind. The first wind machines might have been built in Persia sometime before the year 1000. Windmills, often associated with the Netherlands, are recorded first in England around 1100 and then in Europe as an alternative to water wheels. They were used for grinding grain and pumping water.

Designs became very sophisticated but as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, windmills gave way to steam.

Water-pumping windmills became popular in the American mid-west during the 19th century. There were maybe millions of water pumping machines in use across America at the close of the 1890s. Around 1900, entrepreneurs realised that windmills could be adapted to provide the input for electrical generators. Charles Brush and Poul la Cour built some of the earliest of these wind turbines. The design of modern wind turbines is often traced to Johannes Juul in Denmark; after WW2, Juul built the Gedser wind turbine, which had a straightforward and robust design. This became known as the Danish concept, inspiring subsequent wind turbine designs.

Standard wind turbines have increased in size over time, incrementally but steadily. This is because it's better to have a few large machines than many small machines. Back in the 1980s, the largest wind turbines had power ratings of up to 200 kW, with rotor diameters and tower heights of up to 30 metres. These days, the largest machines have rotor diameters of almost 200 metres and power ratings of 7 MW.

Fossil fuels dominated electricity production in the 20th century and dominate so far in the 21st. In general, wind power expanded when fossil fuels were scarce or expensive. As a result of the oil crisis in the 1970s, government interventions in California between 1980 and 1985 created about 1 GW of wind capacity in the state. Firms such as Enertech from Vermont and Vestas from Denmark sold into the California. After the Californian expansion ended, most wind expansion occured in Europe.

Today, two factors dominate: one is the reality that fossil fuels are running out and those that remain are often controlled by someone else. Securing (energy) supplies is a major policy and corporate goal. The other is climate change. Environmental degradation is something that you might imagine drives energy technology choices but it does not seem to be a significant driver. Similarly, although climate change could end up as an extinction level event, the actions of governments and corporations do not seem to reflect this attitude, c.f. the record profits of oil companies.

Driven largely by government policy and corporate strategy, wind energy has evolved rapidly from a cottage industry into a core component of the energy infrastructure. It's been a boom time. As demand for and deployment of wind turbines increased, the cost of producing electricity from wind turbines has fallen rapidly. Now, wind energy is one of the cheapest ways to make electricity, beating all of the fossil fuels, without government subsidies.

In its favour, a wind turbine has effectiveness (they really work well in the right place), cost (it's super cheap), emissions (it has none during operation) and cleanliness (it has a low environmental impact in terms of waste) and it's renewable (it doesn't get used up). Against, you can count intermittency (sometimes the wind doesn't blow). Also, some environmental disturbance to the environment during the build phase. Once built, they visually impact the countryside. If they are placed thoughtlessly, there can be flicker if you live in the shadow of a machine. There is some noise. And it's true that birds are sometimes killed by wind turbines.

Thinking about the downsides of wind energy, it's important to separate out the things that can be objectively determined from those that cannot. For example, things like the number of birds unfortunately killed can be quantified and placed in context against the number of birds killed by fossil fuels and other dangers, vehicles and buildings. Visual impact and shadow flicker can be predicted. And noise levels are measurable and can be placed in context alongside road noise and so on. Subjective things are how many bird deaths are acceptable, whether or not a person likes how wind turbines look and whether or not, if you can hear it, the noise is annoying to you. These subjective things are debatable and ought to be discussed.

This brings us back to the stories that are told about wind energy in the media.

Those that make wind turbines, develop or finance wind farms or sell electricity sometimes use wind turbines as moral symbols, telling a story about how the organisation is on the right side of history. Fossil fuel companies tell stories, using images of wind turbines to associate themselves with a better future. These stories seem to make progressive disagreement impossible - they are so virtuous! These representations do a disservice to everybody, making a pragmatic tool into a symbol for the claimed progressive values of corporations. Companies are never in themselves moral and wind energy, although objectively a positive and environmentally sound technology, has some flaws.

Telling pious stories without mentioning financial motivations or the downsides of the technology treads the narrow path that separates honesty from dishonesty.

Against wind energy, you find those who perceive their financial interests to be threatened by wind and those who dislike looking at machines that they do not benefit from. Wind turbines are presented as useless, environmentally damaging and expensive. All of these charges are inaccurate to different degrees. Since wind turbines have been appropriated by their political or business opponents as symbols of progressive values, the easiest angle for attack is to denounce wind turbines for exactly the same reason - they symbolise the things that modern conservatives dislike. These groups fund attack advertisements that associate wind energy with the lightning rods of conservative ire, progressive politics and change. That proponents are most often in it for the money or that wind turbines have some flaws are truths that those against wind can highlight. And rightly so.

It looks like the polarisation or politicisation of wind energy is often driven by those with selfish interests.

Who would have thought?

There's a nice harmony here with problems in technology. That technology is tightly interwoven with capitalism is as true in large-scale wind energy as it is for online services.

Ultimately, many of these narrative problems seem to stem from this.

One sad outcome is that people receive their information about wind energy from partisan media; it's easy for people to decide about wind energy for political, not pragmatic reasons. If the only information coming from media are the extreme messages from the for and against camps, then people tend to align themselves in one of two rather extreme positions, as if they are both equally valid or as if there is no room for nuance.

While it's often developers and utilities that come to mind as the major stakeholders in wind development, people are affected by wind turbines in many ways.

Wind turbines go towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, securing a supply of electricity and reducing the costs of electricity, financial, environmental and social. They harness an indigenous source of energy. For this reason, everybody has a stake. Further, wind can be deployed at all scales. It's possible for local communities to benefit from their own wind turbines, creating a decentralised grid. And it's true that those living close to a wind farm must look at the wind turbines every day and must hear any noise they make; these people must be included in conversations about building a wind turbine from the start.

There are so many stories to tell around these ideas. One wonderful example of a positive wind turbine development is the machine in Dundalk IT. It's a Vestas V52 and it provides a significant proportion of the electricity used on campus. Built in 2005 with almost universal local support, it's a testament to the importance of community involvement and a desire to build a better future for the town.

The Economist ran a nice article recently about how farmers in Texas, despite often conservative leanings, are installing wind turbines with enthusiasm. The machines work well and make sense economically and environmentally. Looking at things pragmatically, separated out from politics, wind energy makes sense for them. It doesn't require them to renounce their beliefs or embrace progressive politics. This is a good thing for everybody.

Wind energy is a tool, not a symbol of politics or moral righteousness. Like all the best technologies, it does more right than wrong and it helps get us on a trajectory for a better future, for all of us.

It works well in the right place, it's cheap, it's clean and it's renewable. That's enough!

This page was last rendered on June 29, 2023.