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Wind power, from Dutch windmills to New Mexico turbines

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Energy Issues

Powerful Blows

A brief history of wind power, from Dutch windmills to wind turbines in New Mexico.

by David A. Fryxell

 

 

If the spring season just past has proven anything, it's that New Mexico has no shortage of wind. Indeed, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), New Mexico's winds are capable of producing more than 73 times the state's current electricity needs — 492,093 megawatts. The state ranks 11th in available wind resources.

windmill 1
 

Yet since 2007, New Mexico has fallen from 6th in the nation in installed wind capacity to 19th, at a mere 778 megawatts. Only 6.1% of New Mexico's electricity was generated by wind power last year — the equivalent of 275,000 average homes — ranking 15th in the nation in percentage of power from wind.

A key bottleneck in tapping New Mexico's potential for wind energy has been the lack of transmission lines to funnel the electricity to places that need it. Several projects in development promise to improve that outlook, though none will be completed before next year at the earliest.

In addition to transmission lines supported by the state Renewable Energy Transmission Authority, two independent, private projects are underway. The 240-mile, $700 million Southline Transmission Project would carry 1,000 megawatts from Afton, southwest of Las Cruces, to Tucson. Set for completion in 2016, it would run near I-10, north of Deming, to a substation at Lordsburg and on into Arizona to connect with an existing substation south of Willcox. The 500-mile, $1.5 billion SunZia line from east-central New Mexico to Arizona has been bogged down by a battle over how and where it would cross the White Sands Missile Range; a compromise unveiled in May might put that 3,000-megawatt plan back on track.

In other good news for wind-power boosters, PNM last year announced plans to increase the wind generation on its system by 50% in 2015. The utility will buy wind energy produced by the 102.4-megawatt Red Mesa Wind Energy Center, 50 miles west of Albuquerque in Cibola County. According to a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) passed by New Mexico in 2007, utilities are required to generate 20% of their sales from renewable resources such as solar and wind by 2020; the state Public Regulation Commission raised the proportion of that requirement that must come from wind power from 20% to 30% in 2012.

Overall, according to the AWEA trade group, wind power represented up to 500 jobs in New Mexico last year, with a capital investment of about $1.3 billion and annual land lease payments of more than $2.875 million. The state's wind projects, modest though they are at this point, avoid 1.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year — the equivalent of taking nearly 230,000 cars off the road. Just as important in a drought-ridden region, water-consumption savings from New Mexico wind projects total more than 470 million gallons a year.

 

The dream of free, limitless power from the wind dates from long before even the discovery of electricity. The Greek engineer Heron of Alexandria designed a wind-driven music organ in the first century AD. The Persians built the first practical windmills sometime between 500 and 900 AD, using the vertical-axis engines (spinning like a merry-go-round, as opposed to the now-familiar horizontal-axis design) to pump water and grind grain. The Chinese also had windmills by 1219.

It's a matter of debate whether windmills in western Europe were inspired by these early models or developed independently. The earliest English windmills were "postmill" structures, in which the entire mill — sails and grinding house — turned to face the wind. By about 1390, the Dutch improved on this design with the "tower mill," in which only the top floor moved with the wind, and the "smock mill," named for its distinctive apron-shaped sides. These enabled larger mills where lower floors could be used for grinding and storing grain, as well as living quarters for the windsmith and his family. More aerodynamic sails improved efficiency, beginning a series of incremental improvements that would take another 500 years to perfect.

As wind-power historian Darrell M. Dodge puts it, "These mills were the 'electrical motor' of pre-industrial Europe. Applications were diverse, ranging from the common waterwell, irrigation, or drainage pumping using a scoop wheel, grain-grinding, saw-milling of timber, and the processing of other commodities such as spices, cocoa, paints and dyes, and tobacco."

 

Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the practical beginning of the windmilling of America. Connecticut inventor Daniel Halladay had developed a working wind engine as early as 1854, but found little market for it in water-rich New England. His partner, John Burnham, challenged Halladay to perfect a cheaper, simpler windmill that could operate without regular tending by a "miller." The result was a four-sail, pivoting wind engine with a tail vane that automatically turned it into the wind. Halladay and Burnham moved their operations to Batavia, Ill., closer to potential western customers, and began operation as the US Wind Engine and Pump Company in 1863.

Halladay's invention and competitors such as the Eclipse windmill — invented in 1867 by Rev. Leonard H. Wheeler, a missionary among the Ojibway tribe — were very different from the iconic Dutch windmills of landscape paintings. American windmills were small, one horsepower or less, and sat atop a simple stand rather than a mill building. After the development of steel blades in 1870, which allowed the manufacture of more efficient curved blades, windmills became as common a sight on the prairie as tumbleweeds.

Barbed wire also spurred the spread of windmills, by fencing off parts of the range and limiting access to surface water. Drillers followed the fence crews, guessed at the location of water, and used horse-powered rigs to bore wells. The windmills that pumped the water needed regular tending by roving windmillers, who lived in covered wagons and trekked from one lonely outpost to the next. Range riders also visited the windmills, twice a week, to grease the works with lubricant kept in a can or beer bottle tied to the saddle. Self-lubricating designs, introduced with the Wonder Model A from the Elgin Wind Power and Pump Company in 1912, eliminated this chore; similar to the lubrication of car engines, the moving parts in a self-lubricating mill operated in a "bath" of oil.

Settlement of the parched Great Plains or water-starved places like North Texas or our own Southwest would have been impractical without windmills. Not only thirsty farms but railroads, too, relied on wind power in areas enjoying more wind than water. At the peak of the "windmill wars" in 1928, competing American manufacturers cranked out 99,050 wind engines — the first wind-power devices in history to be mass-produced. Over the years, Americans installed some 6 million mechanical-output wind machines, with Texas deploying the most.

More than a thousand different factories produced windmills in the United States. Many were small operations that failed after the first windstorm revealed the flaws in their designs. Henry Ford was inspired to create the automobile assembly line in part by a childhood visit to a windmill factory, which could turn out a complete windmill every three minutes.

But the prairie windmill couldn't survive rural electrification. As technology and efforts to work out of the Depression spread wires across the country in the 1930s, windmills were put out of work. The last census of windmill manufacturers, taken in 1963, counted only 7,562 units sold in the whole country (3,000 of them in Texas).

 

But why not use wind power to generate the electricity carried by those new webs of wires? Scottish professor James Blyth had begun experiments with wind turbines back in 1887, succeeding in powering his Glasgow home for 25 years. The first large-scale attempt to harness the wind for electrical power was a 164-foot diameter, 144-blade rotor built in Cleveland by Charles F. Brush in 1887-1888. It operated successfully for 20 years, generating a modest 12 kilowatts whose energy was stored in 408 batteries in Brush's cellar.

In 1891, Danish scientist Poul La Cour adapted the aerodynamic principles used in the most efficient European tower mills to generate electricity. Capable of 25 kilowatts, these four-blade airfoil wind generators spread throughout Denmark in the early 20th century — until big, fossil-fueled steam plants put them out of business.

Rural areas of the US also adapted the familiar wind technology to generate power for lighting and crystal radios. In the 1920s, companies including Parris-Dunn and Jacobs Wind-electric sold one- to three-kilowatt wind generators throughout the Midwest.

As the electric grid covered the Western world, however, wind power development shifted from such small-scale designs to "bulk" electrical generation. In 1931, the Soviets built the 100,000-kilowatt Balaclava wind generator on the shore of the Caspian Sea. Americans gave it a try with the 1.25-megawatt Smith-Putnam machine built in Vermont in 1941; its two blades spanned a diameter of 175 feet, and the stainless-steel rotor weighed 16 tons. After only a few hundred hours of operation, however, one of the blades broke near the hub — apparently due to metal fatigue from the heavy load generated in a structure, according to historian Dodge, "that had a lot in common with a gigantic rotating Erector set."

 

 

 

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