I am coming to the conclusion that the wind turbines of today — hundreds of feet tall, sporting three blades, clustered in the cornfields like rotary clubs — will soon go the way of the Model T. Good for their day, but we’ve moved on.
I explored alternative designs in wind power for my latest “Innovate” column in Sierra magazine, and can report that 31 flavors of turbines are poised to engulf the plain ol’ vanilla version we know so well. It isn’t that anything’s so wrong with Old Reliable; it’s more that there’s categories of wind that a giant whirligig just can’t use.
On the roof of Adobe Systems in San Jose there’s a gang of vertical-axis turbines, spinning in breaths of wind that would leave your traditional turbine inert. Go even smaller and you find the Windbelt, suitable for installation by the hundreds on bridges or porch railings.
Then there’s Earth’s atmosphere, where winds blow with even more power than they do on the Dakota prairies. A propeller on a steel post could only dream of catching the breezes harnessed by an out-there generation of kites. Tethered to the ground with a power line, these models describe endless circles in the sky 1,200 feet up, outfitted with two small propellers like a cross between a barnstormer and a Predator drone. Or the Sky Windpower turbine, which is essentially a helicopter the size of an airliner held to the ground by the world’s longest extension cord. It would fly itself five miles up into the Jet Stream, and if it needed maintenance or if the weather got too rough, it would maneuver itself back to the ground.
Back on Earth, the contraption that might kill the garden-variety windcatcher is the FloDesign turbine, currently undergoing testing in Massachusetts. Designed by aerospace engineers, it might do to the standard Vestas or General Electric turbine what the jet engine did to the prop plane. FloDesign is optimized to suck in air so its rotor spins like a crazed dervish. Its compact design means turbines might be able to be placed closer together than today’s spidery creatures, and quite possibly generate more power. Less space, more power; hasta la vista, vanilla turbine.
Finally, I am waiting for the ambitious mayor of some oceanside city to unveil plans for an Aerogenerator. Standing 450 feet off the water, this behemoth would produce enough power for 2,700 homes, but even more importantly it would become an icon admired for its sheer industrial size, like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. Unlike other monumental architecture, though, it would move, making three ponderous rotations a minute for the tourists’ cameras.
Maybe the plain ol’ wind turbine won’t disappear. Maybe it just will lose its category-defining status, the way that the term “computer” has come to mean more than just a big beige box sitting on your desk. The wind industry will have its laptops, Google Androids and iPads, each with its own size blades — or perhaps no blades at all.
All this reflection on the wind turbine has me wondering when we will become familiar enough with turbines that we begin to experiment with something other than their shape and style. Henry Ford famously said that “People can have the Model T in any color – so long as it’s black.” How long until the wind industry breaks out of its own beige box and turn out a windcatcher in dashing red, or shimmering gold?