Stuff We Need: Better Wind Turbines

Listen, I like windmills as much as anyone. Whereas some see wind farms, like the one in the photo here, as eyesores, I think they are cool-looking and make me feel hopeful that they are catching on.

But then I came across a post at Inhabitat about a new turbine design, based on a very old 1913 turbine design by Nikolai Tesla, that seemed incredibly promising.

Now, one of the benefits of this design, says its creator, SolarAero, is that it is safer for birds and bats. I’d never heard that windmills were dangerous to birds and other flying critters, and so I did some Googling and got the scoop, which is very interesting.

If I’d just gone by the first article I found, a piece in Wired, I would have concluded that, wow, how sad, this is a huge problem. Doubly sad, because, as I said, I like those cool-looking wind farms.

Digging a little deeper, however, it became pretty clear that the Altamont Pass wind farm mentioned in the Wired article has become a red herring used by NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups to block construction of new wind farms, folks who obviously don’t think that modern windmills are cool.

Yes, the Altamont Pass wind farm is a problem and has been responsible for too many bird deaths. It’s supposed to be helping the environment!

However, Treehugger does a pretty good job of setting the record straight, pointing out that the average number of bird deaths per year across all turbines in the U.S. paints another picture entirely:

In the United States, cars and trucks wipe out millions of birds each year, while 100 million to 1 billion birds collide with windows. According to the 2001 National Wind Coordinating Committee study, “Avian Collisions with Wind Turbines: A Summary of Existing Studies and Comparisons to Other Sources of Avian Collision Mortality in the United States,” these non-wind mortalities compare with 2.19 bird deaths per turbine per year. That’s a long way from the sum mortality caused by the other sources.

Getting back to the SolarAero turbine, while I’m all in favor of saving the lives of innocent birds, the most promising features of the new-old design have to do with the critical issue of making wind power cost-effective.

According to the company, this turbine should cost around $1.50 per watt of rated output, and have a lifetime operating cost of about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour — comparable to, or even better than, current retail electrical rates in many parts of the country. This would make the SolarAero turbine about 2/3 the price of a comparable bladed unit, and because of the significantly lower operating costs, lifetime maintenance could be just 1/4 the cost. At this point the project is still under development, and no manufacturer has been lined up as of yet.

Just about every currently available green energy alternative suffers from issues of cost and/or scalability: an option might be too expensive, and/or, in the case of solar and wind, you have to cover so many thousands of square miles with the devices that there’s bound to be pushback from some group or another.

If the SolarAero turbine can solve both these problems, we might just have something here. What say we start by replacing the Altamont Pass windmills with these SolarAero turbines and move on?

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