Déjà Vu All Over Again – Wind Power

Once upon a time long ago, in 1973, OPEC “tied a knot in our gasoline hoses” and had us standing in long lines to fill up our cars. The country became panicky and a myriad of actions were proposed to alleviate the effects of the embargo. Many were band-aided into a package of salvation called Energy Independence, but not including such practical approaches as a surge in drilling for more oil. Included were the usual solutions or “hopey-changey” things like windmills and photovoltaic power that are also bundled into today’s salvation, Alternative Power.

One of the first acts of government in 1974 was to establish the United States Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) an organization to throw money at the problem, preferably into the districts of the congressmen who were in charge of the appropriations. It was formed from the functions of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) other than its regulatory groups. These groups became the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, essentially as it is today. The Energy Research and Development Administration was finally activated in January 1975.

While this huge, slow re-organization was going on, the government was pushing in many directions, including getting all government buildings to set their thermostats to 68 degrees, as I remember. President Carter made his “memorable” TV address in his cardigan sweater while admonishing us to get cool and stay cool.

Anyone who had any work with the government agencies knew that money was going to be flowing fast from Washington and there were many suggestions and proposals advanced to “help” the government spend it.

GE was not to be left out and many of its energy groups worked up proposals that centered around their present products and which, if successful, could help reduce our energy usage. The Space Division of GE at Valley Forge, where I worked, was assigned the responsibility for the areas that GE was not already in, such as wind, solar, geothermal, et al.

Our Vice President assigned four of us to spend two weeks, off site, with authority to bring in other GE experts, sales people familiar with Washington, its gelling funding, and plans, and to develop a business plan to cover these fields. The plan was prepared, presented to the VP and his staff. The plan was accepted, funded through the year with company funds, and a program office, engineering, manufacturing, and marketing groups were established. I was appointed to head the new energy engineering group.

We had learned that the National Science Foundation would be doing scoping studies in promising approaches and that contracts would be awarded to companies that had capability to do the work. GE Valley Forge was awarded a number of such programs including a study of where windmills might be used economically throughout the US, another on how best to use photovoltaic systems for homes in various states, another covering how effective solar heating could be. Out of these efforts were to flow the ideas that seemed most promising for further hardware development and tests.

We had some early enthusiasm about our work but it soon waned as we worked the details and included practical situations not usually emphasized by eager advocates including such as; complete life cycle costs, unpredictability of the wind and clouds, etc.

The government was soon ready to build some demonstration systems to provide some real world data. We designed and built a number of solar hot water heating systems on buildings, for example; a school building in Boston, a state park building in New Jersey.

The biggest and most difficult demonstration project we did, under contract to the Department of Energy (the next new organization that absorbed ERDA and other government groups) was a windmill built on Howard’s Knob in Boone, NC. 

This experimental grid-connected turbine with as large a capacity as 2MW was installed in 1979. As you can see from the Time Magazine article below there were problems through the years.

Time Magazine, June 2, 1980

Shushing the swish-swish

The world’s largest windmill began operating last year in Boone, N.C. With blades that stretch 60 meters (200 ft.) from tip to tip and can generate 2,000 kw of electricity, it is also, it seems, the world’s noisiest. Besides dominating the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains landscape—or despoiling it, as some of those living near by complain—the monster rattles windows, bounces cups and saucers and creates an irritating swish-swish.

Surprised by this unexpected noise pollution from an experimental power plant that was supposed to be almost entirely free of environmental headaches, engineers from the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA flocked to Boone (pop. 8,754). Their findings: though the very low-frequency sound waves (about 2 cycles per sec.) from the windmill are below the usual range of human hearing, they can be amplified by wind and weather conditions and the terrain over which they are directed and thus become powerful enough to vibrate objects in the home.

Muffling the wind machine may force a major retooling of the $6 million project, including a change of blades and electrical generators to allow for slower rotation. It may also require a reorientation of the basic design, so that future windmills face into the wind rather than away from it. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy has given Boone some temporary relief. Until some way can be found to hush the noisy blades, they will no longer be allowed to whirl at night, in the early morning or on weekends.

In early 1978 I had left my Valley Forge job to accept a position representing GE in supporting fusion energy research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After I left I remember hearing that the windmill also interfered with the TV signals in parts of Boone and that GE had installed a small cable setup to avoid the problems.

Most of us involved in wind energy, after going through the studies and the demonstration, felt considerably less enchanted with it than we had hoped in the beginning. Our belief was that it could not compete economically with other forms of power generation without a significant and long term government subsidy.

And now, after some twenty-five years we are at it again, albeit with some better technology, but the momentum of wind energy seems, now, to be losing its “tail wind.”

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