Kate Mackenzie Wind power in 1909: The more things change…

yes, Okay so we’ve been a little wind-tastic today, but The Times has pointed out this 1909 piece by ‘An engineering correspondent’ from its archives that makes us rather wistful for a more hopeful era for energy (and a more peaceful pace of journalism):

In view of our diminishing returns of coal and petroleum, the utilization of wind-power deserves careful attention. The available water power in this country is very limited, and the development of it generally requires so great a capital outlay that the standing charges more than equal the cost of the coal required to produce the same results by means of gas or steam.

But what about, say, the Severn, where several schemes (including one costing £20bn) are under consideration?

Most of our rivers traverse more or less flat country through which they flow in a sluggish manner, and in order to obtain the necessary fall for their utilization costly embankments and dams have to be constructed, while even when rivers, such as the Thames or the Severn, are already dammed at intervals for purposes of navigation the power thus provided is not always taken advantage of.

Well, they didn’t have nimby-ism then, but the impact on shipping is one of the reasons cited by opponents today. The unnamed correspondent continues:

Wind-power, on the other hand, is almost unlimited, and the capital outlay for its development compares favourably with that required for gas or steam. The intermittent and varying results obtained from wind-mills, however, confine their usefulness to industries in which the storage of power can be simply effected, and this feature is always met with in some form or other.

The story notes that ‘storage’ can be affected if wind is used for pumping water or grinding corn, but:

It is only when windmills become are used for providing a constant supply of electric current that storage becomes costly and troublesome, and conditions must be favourable to enable wind to compete successfully with other sources of power in this case.

For farmers, the author argues a ‘windmill with electrical transmission’ would often be justified as the alternative – a ‘portable oil engine’ – would require time to adjust belts and pulleys, and an “appreciable” cost of repairs.

However to seriously compete with gas or coal, it all comes back to storage. For a windmill that could reach 10 miles per hour for a few hours a day, the correspondent writes, it might be possible, with the right controls and equipment, to be a useful source of power. But natural gas plants could still be needed as a back-up.

Sound familiar?

Related links:

Why the CBI wants less wind (FT Energy Source, 14/07/09)
In Vestas in the future? Why offshore wind won’t work (FT Energy Source, 28/07/09)