Give me a spirit that on this life’s rough sea
Loves t’ have his sails filled with a lusty wind …
– George Chapman

More and more people are waking up to the fact that the world is in a period of great crisis and opportunity around the issue of energy generation and use. The fossil fuels we rely on for power are poisoning the atmosphere and threatening the stability of the Earth’s climate. We’ve known about this problem since the 1970s, but vested economic interests have retarded our progress in developing alternatives.

Fortunately, a small number of dedicated people have continued their work, despite minimal support, to develop technologies for renewable solar and windpower for the past thirty or so years. Today, peak oil and global warming are beginning to change the economics of power generation and the world is looking to these pioneers for solutions.

Randy Tinkerman is one of these pioneers, and he agreed to answer some of my questions about the status of windpower today. Randall M. “Randy” Tinkerman co-developed the world’s first utility-scale windplant, in the Altamont Pass near San Francisco. He is one of the pioneers profiled in the recent book Reaping the Wind, by Peter Asmus (Island Press, 2001). He currently is advising banks, investment houses and funds regarding windpower. He has lived in Germany, where he supports that nation’s efforts to build a global sustainable economy, since 2002.

Before answering my questions, though, Randy asked that we dedicate his interview to another wind pioneer who is recently deceased. Randy’s wish is, I believe, a testament to the devotion of a small group of engineers and scientists who have persevered to coax the dream of renewable energy into reality:

I dedicate this interview to Dr. Forrest “Woody” Stoddard, windpower aerodynamics pioneer, turbine designer, company founder, teacher, and good friend, without whom there would be far less of a wind industry globally.
– Randall M. Tinkerman

Q: Randy, I know that windpower has been going through a big growth spurt recently, but I was surprised to learn that installed US windpower grew more slowly in 2006 than it did in 2005. Is that because of the uncertainty about the wind production tax credit? Congress has not provided a longterm production tax credit for windpower and it has had to be renewed on an annual or a semi-annual basis. Is this uncertainty causing the slow growth in US windpower relative to windpower growth in Europe?

A: Yes and no. Growth in 2005 exploded, with some 2400 megawatts installed, because there were only 370 MWs installed in 2004 while the industry awaited word from Congress on a renewal of tax incentives. When the credit was renewed in the fall of 2004 through 2007, the industry was ready to jump. The just-released figures for 2006 show only a small increase over last year at 2454 megawatts.

Cumulatively that’s an increase of 27 percent of total capacity, which now stands at 11,603 MWs or enough to power an estimated 2.9 million homes. For comparison’s sake Germany, at about the size of Texas, already has more than 20,600 MWs installed, in about ten years less time. Globally the industry installed about 15,000 MWs in 2006 to total 75,000 MWs.

Several projects in the US pipeline were deferred until the first quarter of 2007, and other projects did not go forward as quickly as had been hoped, because turbines themselves are in short supply due to global expansion. It’s highly likely that there will be over 3000 MWs installed in 2007 in the US, for a cumulative growth of 26 percent and an annual growth of 23 percent.

Windpower in the US has been characterized by politically driven boom-and-bust cycles for more than two decades. The effect of these cycles has been to delay or preclude serious longterm investment in windpower facilities, for example in turbine manufacturing and assembly plants. For such a large potential market as the US, this has the effect of keeping costs higher than necessary.

The Production Tax Credit was recently extended again through 2008. This is the first time we have seen a foundation of stability in the US market, and the US will likely remain the largest single market in the world. We are already beginning to see the effect on increased production facilities. Most observers expect the credit to be extended further, at least through 2010.

The birth of the commercial wind industry occurred in the US in the early eighties, and it was inexcusable that America was allowed to fall so far behind Europe in both installations and technology development. The European Union has long placed a much higher value on renewable energy and a sustainable economy, and has sought to mitigate the negative effects of global warming more than any other country in the world.

Q: How is NIMBYism – like the resistance to the Cape Cod wind project – impacting the growth of the wind industry in the US?

A: There will always be NIMBYism, just as some people continue to support the Bush administration’s criminal energy policy (and other policies), but I don’t think it’s a major impediment. The most organized opposition to windpower was in England, and while it slowed development, production is ever increasing in Britain. Despite the opposition, which has gotten much smaller as the facts come in, the majority of people want increased windpower, as evidenced by a huge new project in Scotland and the beginnings of the UK offshore industry.

All of the surveys throughout the world showed and continue to show massive support for windpower development. The Eurobarometer released last week showed a whopping 71 percent support for windpower across the EU, and that’s in lands where there are already tens of thousands of turbines in windy coastal or hilly lands. Denmark was 91 percent in favor! And 88 percent of Greece wants to see turbines on their landscape.

By the way, support for nuclear power in the Eurobarometer was 20 percent.

The Cape Wind project is a different story, because in a sense it’s a tempest in a teapot. Offshore windpower in the US only becomes really important when we have installed a few hundred thousand megawatts, and are already moving to a hydrogen economy. (There is, of course, the serious argument that offshore windpower is far closer to the coastal load centers. But with intelligent transmission policy, offshore windpower can wait until it has matured, while the plains resources are intensively developed.)

Offshore windpower is completely different in Europe. Here we don’t have the wide open prairies with great wind resources that America does, we have farmland mixed with industrial use and urban centers not very far off. There is far less available high-resource land open here. More important, coastal areas and open spaces also have their priority.

But Europe has the giant pool table of the North and the Baltic Seas, with both shallow depths and an exceptionally strong wind resource. Thus European offshore can be much farther from the coasts, with no complaints about visual intrusion. The resource is so huge that an offshore supergrid is being discussed, to carry the power from the strong winds to a Europe-wide net of transnational power consumers.

The US does not have such vast areas of shallow depths, and any offshore wind has to be relatively close to shore. Thus there will always be some opposition from people who don’t see their own lungs being filled with poison from distant power plants, and their own economies ravaged by energy and security costs.

And we won’t even address how NIMBY complaints stack up against global warming science, other than to point out that ostriches are not yet extinct.

Q: A recent study found that windpower in England was producing at only about 26 percent of its installed capacity. While we wouldn’t expect wind to produce at 100 percent of its capacity because the wind doesn’t blow 100 percent of the time, this still seems rather low. Does this hurt windpower’s ability to compete economically with coal and nuclear power?

A: If the study were based upon modern standards it would hurt, competitively, against conventional sources. But it uses flawed data, because the free market allows some inferior windplants to be built, including some with poor siting, so unscrupulous developers can make upfront money without building a quality project. This occurs in every industry.

The truth is that Great Britain has the strongest wind resource in Europe, particularly in Scotland. Capacity factors there approach 40 percent and above. For windpower, that’s very strong.

No technology reliably produces more than 65-75 percent capacity factors in real world data, with some exceptions. So when an intermittent resource can approach 40 percent, and the fuel is free for the lifetime of the technology, then we’re talking about significant capacity factor.

The greater truth is that all the actual costs of conventional power are not included in the economic analysis because of the nature of our energy markets. If they were, no one, including the bankers, would complain about even 28 percent capacity factor.

If the public knew the true costs of coal and especially nuclear, which will now get a huge propaganda effort as an antidote to global warming, there wouldn’t even be a discussion.

Q: What percentage of our current electrical power use do you think wind could provide, and what are the technical and other challenges to scaling up US windpower installations to meet this benchmark?

A: This is your best question, because it entails what we do as a civilization. The real challenge is not the technology or the grid capacity, but rather the will of the American people. Do we understand that our children demand from us a responsible, intelligent energy program?

When the “Apollo” program of building windpower capacity has hit 360,000 megawatts, or about 20 percent of US electrical use, then we can begin to think about future percentages of power provision. The best studies available show us that with an intelligent grid and enhanced wind prediction, we don’t yet know the limits of windpower.

With a load-following grid based in real-time, we could easily have 40 percent of our power from the winds. The technology already exists, and in places in Europe we are already approaching this high level of windpower grid incursion. Western Denmark has already seen above 41 percent, northern Germany above 30 percent. The only experts who deny this is occurring are those who will make money from nuclear power.

More than anything there needs to be a coherent, longterm plan to vastly expand turbine production facilities and secure raw materials. Such a plan needs to be built on the overwhelming support of an enlightened populace, forcing the politicians to get serious. But the growth of the industry in the last fifteen years or less is evidence that we can meet the technical challenges.

Q: Briefly, what about the North American power grid – can it handle the challenges of integrating windpower, and if not, what sort of investment are we talking about to upgrade it?

A: The short answer is: No. The North American grid can not currently handle the challenges of integrating needed windpower. Not only that, our grid can’t handle the threats posed by those who would shut it down by relatively simple means. Our grid could be shut down for months by a very few sharpshooters. We are that vulnerable.

There are seemingly boundless hills, plains and plateaus where the wind resource is extensive. The great majority of those resources are far from the demand (load) where we need the electricity. But transmission bottlenecks constrain the delivery of that vast clean power.

The biggest single constraint to the development of windpower throughout America is the archaic transmission system. The upgrade cost over the longterm is huge, perhaps equaling the cost of a few months or more of war in Iraq, but the cost of not taking action is far worse. Upgrading transmission not only allows far greater use of windpower, it will bring increased security and reliability. In fact, behind the scenes today, all policy planners know this – the only question is who will take the first financial step?

Q: Please give us a word about birds and bats. You were involved in developing the world’s first utility-scale windpower project in the Altamont Pass in California, famous for killing lots of rare golden eagles. What has the wind industry learned since then about saving wildlife?

A: The industry has learned an incredible amount as it has matured over time. One must remember that when we first confronted avian mortality in the Altamont Pass, there had been merely a few hundred megawatts installed worldwide over several years. Now we have had 75,000 MWs installed for decades in nearly every type of climate and environmental zone. We have found through conscientious study that with proper development, windpower has a very minimal effect on surrounding flora and fauna.

The problems in the Altamont were unique to that area, and the type of turbines installed. There was a confluence of factors found only there which led to the regrettable raptor kills. Despite all that, measured against the overall effects of power production from conventional fuels, even in the Altamont the effects on the avian population were minimal.

I had tried to demonstrate that modern windpower was compatible with environmentally sensitive areas, and my project was in the most sensitive area of the Pass, which included Native American cave paintings, endangered Palmer Oaks which were being trampled by cows, and an eagle’s nest. We tried to accommodate those concerns, including changing the site plan and eliminating or moving turbines.

But the industry has learned its lessons well. The researchers are learning that loss of habitat by urban and suburban encroachment is a far more deleterious effect. Given the big picture, the only serious bat problem is the shortage of good wood for Louisville Sluggers.

Q: You were pretty critical about the speculative wind technologies I described in a recent article – mostly different versions of a high-altitude wind turbine flown like a kite. You called them “pie in the sky” quackery. Given that the name of the game in windpower is to capture the wind where it is most powerful, and that wind speed increases exponentially with the height above ground, what can we do realistically to put wind turbines in the path of the strongest and steadiest winds?

A: Globally, we need to fill the existing areas of strong resources with the technology that is available or on the drawing boards today. That still requires a large commitment to be accomplished. When we have windpower meeting 20 percent of global use, we can begin to explore some of the more exotic technologies at the fringes of our expertise.

As an example, many people support micro-turbines on buildings as part of our energy future. From an architectural standpoint, that may be cool, and from a showcasing of renewables standpoint, that may be effective. However, given that the cost of energy from the turbines is so much higher, (people like to build where the winds are weakest, not strongest) why not just have city-dwellers invest in the cost-effective modern rural turbines, and ship the power back home?

Q: Thanks for answering my questions about windpower. It’s a technology that a lot of people are putting a lot of hope in. I’d like to conclude by hearing what you think is the most exciting development in windpower today.

A: There are two very important windpower babies I’d like to see nurtured for the near future, and for which technologies are already being developed in research labs around the globe. One is to build floating turbine foundations, so we can go into deeper waters around the world. Which would help bring us to the second key development, the vast use of windpower at sea to produce various forms of hydrogen. Then we can use windpower as a transportation fuel, a fertilizer, and a storage technology.

But what’s also really exciting for me is to see, thirty years after I worked on a crew that installed a 2 kilowatt turbine, how far windpower has come in my lifetime. When I step back and consider what we’ve already accomplished, windpower’s growth is breathtaking. And that’s only the beginning.

Kelpie Wilson is Truthout’s environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of Darwin’s Radio, says: “Primal Tears is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family.”