Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wind Power: the True Story

They say that a good book should always tell a story. And this is true for this book by Paul Gipe. Titled "Wind Energy for the Rest of Us" is not just about the technology, but it tells the whole story of the development of the field, starting with the first windmills, all the way to the modern, high-power towers. And it is a book of excellent graphic and textual quality. Something that's becoming rare in a time when publishers provide less and less editorial services. Highly suggested if you want to learn about wind energy.

The book is choc-full of data, explanations, illustrations, descriptions, stories, and more, including a thorough discussion of the legends that surround wind power; from the idea that it causes various kinds of sicknesses to the one that it is a bird-destroyer. It includes a critique of the just as legendary "improvements" that crackpots keep proposing in terms of wonderful innovation meant to improve a technology that already works well enough for what we need and for what the physical system in which it operates can give.

So, this is one of the best books on renewable energy that I happened to read in recent times. But, of course, no matter how positive a book review can be, one need also to discuss shortcomings. In this book I found very little that I didn't like, but I may criticize the way airborne wind energy (AWE) (also known as "kite power") is described; dismissed as a useless dream in a few paragraphs. I understand that for people used to deal with Gigawatts and giant wind towers, the idea of getting energy from small kites looks a little ludicrous. And it is also true that, after that so much has been said about AWE, there is not a single machine on the market that can reliably operate continuously at a few kW of power. Still, I think there is the possibility for kite power to grow into a useful technology, if we don't expect it to save the world (as, unfortunately, some people keep saying).

Finally, I can note that it is disappointing that the development of such a good and reliable technology as wind power seems to be experiencing a slowdown. Here are the latest data from GWEC.

According to our calculations, wind power, just as other forms of renewable power, should grow much faster if we are to replace fossil fuels before the Paris emission targets are breached. Yet, despite the slowdown of 2016, wind power is still going strong worldwide, so we can hope it will play an important role in the future of energy supply. And so, we keep going onward!


  1. Agreed Professore Bardi. Though the growth of wind energy is dramatic, it is clearly not fast enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change. We need massive expansion of not only wind energy but of all forms of renewable energy. There's no time to lose.

  2. What is not in the figure above (16 years of build out) the mw of windturbines that are decommissioned because of old age. Maybe the book covers it, I have not read it. But can an island community run on wind turbine energy without any fossil energy deliveries -- or any imported goods or services for say 400 years.

  3. Hi Ugo, Paul's comments on airborne wind energy were based in part on my assessments of the space. I went broad and deep across the space a couple of years ago after hearing about it for a couple of decades. I looked at the various active technologies and the published literature, both historical and recent. There wasn't space in the book of course for the extensive writing I did on the subject, but my opinion and Paul's were not reached without research and thought. Paul summarized several assessments relatively briefly, not only mine but his own. That's reasonable in my opinion. The space does not deserve more than a couple of pages. It's a footnote in wind generation.

    If you are interested, please have a look at some of these pieces.

    This is the broad assessment I did across the major engineering choices and their pros and cons, looking at every extant technology at the time and briefly assessing their viability.

    Makani is by far the closest to a viable product right now, having demonstrated briefly a 600 KW prototype in December 2016. But that's still a long way from commercialization. Apologies that content management challenges at this site caused the graphics to malfunction, but my assessment of their approach stands.

    MIT is behind the Altaeros BAT airborne turbine. They are hunting smaller and smaller niches without much success. The last time I looked at them they were trying to find a problem that their solution could solve.

    Similar graphics challenges impact some of the images in this article on another technology, but the core is still present.

    I interacted with numerous PhDs, engineers, corporate representatives and enthusiasts over the course of assembling this point of view. In the tiny niche space of airborne wind energy, I'm reasonably well known, and in some places disliked. But no one has effectively answered the concerns I raise or the challenges I've pointed out.

  4. to put it bluntly, we cant run industrial civilization on renewable energy anyway so its a moot point that its not being developed fast enough. in fact theres probably a reason its not being built. all the energy we can lay our hands on is being used to keep the car based economy afloat, everyone fed and trying to keep the infrastructure we have built from falling apart. thinking we can just swop over to alternative energy is pie in the sky.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017