Sunday, May 15, 2011

The question of scale

There are many times when I discuss wind power that someone will come up to me and ask whether there is a future in household-sized wind turbines.  Most of them want so badly for there to be a cheap way to generate electricity on their own--it would be their way of saying "f**k you" to The Man.  Hoping for assurance that there are at least a good set of plans out there, they grow visibly disappointed when I tick off the real reasons (aside from male ego) why wind turbines are so large.

  • In most places on earth (and that most certainly includes Minnesota) the wind isn't very strong or reliable until about 100 ft (good round number) above the surface.  By the time you erect a tower tall enough to get to the good wind, you have so much invested that putting a tiny generator up there makes no sense.
  • Owning your own wind turbine is a LOT harder than it sounds.  These things are outside in insanely tough conditions that causes damage to even the best-built mechanical devices.  Most folks barely keep up with the maintenance on their cars--and maintaining a wind turbine would be at least 10 times more difficult (and probably expensive).  

There was a time not so long ago when wind power was touted as a sort of "alternative lifestyle" answer to the evils of burning coal.  But these days wind turbine installations are often opposed by a motley collection of self-styled environmentalists making absurd charges about bird kills or complaining that these graceful creations are ugly.  Because these complaints are so crazy, I am tempted to believe their real problem with modern wind turbines is that they aren't hippy-scaled, but are in fact large industrial projects.

This is a long way of explaining why I think energy projects will always have sound reasons for being some variation on ginormous.  But just because the technology tends to be large and complex doesn't mean citizens cannot do something about who controls the technology.  The Man isn't the Man because powerplants are so large, it's usually because the financial arrangements are too large.
Germany's "Electricity Rebels"
DW BUSINESS | 18.04.2005
Germany's reputation for environmental friendliness may have found its expression in the Black Forest citizens' initiative that won a David and Goliath battle against the local electricity provider.
In April 1986, Ursula Sladek lay at home, incapacitated with a broken thigh after a skiing accident. As fallout from the Soviet reactor Chernobyl rained over Europe, Sladek pleaded with her kids not to go out in the yard. They ignored her, and that got her thinking. 
To counter her feeling of helplessness, Sladek, a homemaker, joined forces with other Schönau residents and formed Parents for a Nuclear-Free Future. Their aim was to put an end to atomic energy. The group did what they could to raise townspeople's energy awareness, running competitions to save energy and even approaching the Black Forest town's electricity provider, hoping that Kraftübertragungswerke Rheinfelden (KWR) would introduce prices that rewarded customers for frugal energy use.
But by showing the parents the door, the stony faces at KWR inadvertently heralded the end of their golden days of providing Schönau with electricity. After 13 years, two town referendums and a successful nationwide campaign to raise funds, the Schönau "electricity rebels," as the press dubbed the citizens' initiative, became the first German community to buy back their own power grid.
"We weren't after the electricity network," Sladek has said. "In the beginning we just wanted a little support for our idea."
The "rebels" started producing the energy their town needed by building block heating stations and installing solar panels, including outfitting the local Protestant church with solar cells. What they couldn't supply themselves they bought. And in 1999, Elektrizitätswerke Schönau (EWS) went national, a year after the German electricity market was liberalized.
With size comes power
Today, the Schönauer initiative heads one of the largest of Germany's half dozen "green" electricity companies and is rapidly on its way to 30,000 customers, according to Sladek, now one of EWS's managing directors.
"We see ourselves as a political energy organization," said Sladek. "The aim isn't to earn more but to have more power." Size is the way to influence, she said. 
In a country of 80 million people, however, EWS Schönau's customer base appears insignificant. The company doesn't advertise, relying instead on word of mouth from satisfied customers to recruit new ones and investing its profits in promoting environmentally friendly electricity sources. To that end, EWS helps customers set up their own environmentally friendly means of producing electricity and pays them for the kilowatts they deliver into the grid. more


  1. I do love that Ursula Sladek/Schonau story.

    I must admit to being one of those small household-sized wind guys, but you are correct in that the wind is not reliable as the sole source of power...however who says you can only have one source?

    My thought has been to have at least two (three if you include The Man's electric company). Solar PV for sunny days, wind for when the sun is tucked behind the clouds (which tend to mean stormy, which tend to mean windy). I even thought we should have a stationery bike power generator for emergencies.

    The advantage of us supplying our own power extends beyond no nukes, it would use the existing power grid without having to carve new transmission lines across every country.

    I think of it as the austerity movement in energy production...don't thank me, thank the GOP teapartiers for such small thinking. :)

  2. If you make this work, I want to post the pictures!

    I am not saying this won't work. It is just that it will require someone (perhaps like yourself) who has a lot of mechanical skills and the energy to use them.