Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Back to the Future: Wind Power

Sometimes a good innovation comes from an old idea—such as windmills. Invented more than 1,000 years ago in Persia, their whirling sails and spinning blades harnessed wind power to draw water and grind grain from China to Holland to farms across America. Replaced by electric motors powered by high-voltage electric grids, the ancient windmill is making a comeback as a 21st century source of energy.

Enormous windmill farms generating megawatts of electricity have popped up in California, Texas, New York and several other states, as well as in Europe, China, India and many other countries. Innovative uses of small scale windmills have also grown.

My favorite is a farm-type windmill that spins atop a cell phone relay tower next to an interstate highway in New Jersey. Imagine if every cell phone tower sprouted a windmill to generate electricity to run its relay equipment. That could be the very model of modern energy self-sufficiency.

Another innovative use of wind power caught my eye on a trip this summer: At a newly renovated rest stop on an interstate highway in Missouri, the state highway agency is using a Windspire—a lattice-work cylinder that reminded me of the efficient tines of an electric eggbeater—to power the lights for the visitors center.

Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, some quick Internet research found, is installing 25 of these wind generators to power outdoor lights around the campus. “We have designed many state of the art initiatives on this new seminal ‘green’ campus for Quinnipiac University, but the wind turbine terrace will be the most prominent and exciting statement about the University’s commitment to sustainable practices,” said Jeff Riley of Centerbrook Architects, which is lining the main walkway with the spinning aluminum devices. “The technology and vertical axis design of the Windspire allowed us to place wind power right in the center of campus."

The compact size of these wind-catchers, created by Mariah Power of Reno, Nevada, could make them an appealing alternative to lining every scenic ridge and ocean front with humongous arrays of giant windmill propellers.

“Some green energy advocates say the Windspire, a power turbine that spins in an upright position in a confined space, could represent a major breakthrough for wind energy. Instead of using towers 100 feet tall or higher for conventional windmills, the Windspire is just 30 feet tall,” Raleigh, North Carolina News and Observer reporter John Murawski noted in a recent feature story. “The Windspire—with its comparatively low price tag and a design that works on office rooftops and in suburban open spaces—also offers a potential solution for those who just want to supplement their power supply.”

Besides contributing to the replacement of more expensive, environmentally hazardous sources of electric power such as burning coal and oil, coming up with new windmill designs must be fun.

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