TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Windfarms

TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Windfarms - Windmills aren't everyone's idea of hi-tech but, thanks to new government initiatives on renewable power, the breeze is back in their sails again for the first time since the industrial revolution. If energy mi

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Windmills aren't everyone's idea of hi-tech but, thanks to new government initiatives on renewable power, the breeze is back in their sails again for the first time since the industrial revolution. If energy minister Brian Wilson has his way, latter-day windmills will be popping up all around the British coastline in the next few years.

Strictly speaking, these sleek modern creations are wind turbines, generating electricity rather than making flour. Their aerodynamic design uses the latest composite materials rather than Windy Miller's wood and canvas, but the principle is the same.

THE CHALLENGE: In an effort to keep environmental promises made at Kyoto in 1997, the Government has pledged that 10% of the nation's power will come from renewable sources by 2010 - an ambitious target, given that the figure now stands at only 2.8%. In December, Wilson unveiled plans for 18 new windfarms dotted around the coast, the largest of which will cost pounds 600 million and cover 28,000 acres of the tempest-tossed Hebridean island of Lewis.

Of the three practical clean alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear power, only the wind and waves are exploitable in our climate - there just isn't enough sun for solar energy. Wave power offers great potential but is technically and environmentally tricky. By contrast, wind turbines are easy to build and ready to go straight away.

THE SOLUTION: Windmills first appeared in the Middle East - the exact date is uncertain but the Iranians were using them by 600 AD - and the Dutch and the Germans brought them to Europe in the 1100s. Using the wind to generate electricity is a modern idea that originated in the US during the oil crisis of 1973-74. Early turbines could hardly keep one household going, but the latest models can generate up to 2 megawatts apiece, enough for about 1,400 homes.

The world's largest windfarm is in America - 6,000 turbines cover 54 square miles of the Altamont Pass, powering about 500,000 electricity-hungry Californians. But the Lewis installation will be the biggest in Europe. Project leaders Amec and British Energy say that, with 300 turbines, it will deliver up to 600 megawatts - about half the output of one of the ageing and unpopular nuclear power stations that British Energy runs.

Wind power isn't all plain sailing. The unit energy cost is higher, and even fans admit that it will take about 10,000 turbines to get anywhere near the 10% target. Conservationists also worry that birds could get tangled in the whirling 70m-diameter rotor blades. But if Wilson (a roadie for Scot-rockers Runrig before he entered Parliament) is really serious about alternative energy, the answer may be blowing in the wind.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime