Nov 2009

A quick note about wind power

I’m generally a fan of engineers and the engineering mindset. Although I’ve now left that industry, I always felt that being an engineer meant that I was essentially a problem-solver. In fact, often when people asked me what I did, that was my response… “I solve problems”. Of course, the primary problem I tended to be solving back then was how to get fizzy pop into bottles as efficiently as possible which — let’s face it — probably doesn’t rank very high on the list of the world’s priorities. All the same, the last project I worked on prior to my career change involved saving a company that was about to go out of business. Safeguarding the world’s fizzy pop supplies may not be all that important, but ensuring that a couple of thousand people kept their jobs (many in some of the most deprived towns in America) seemed like a positive thing at the time.

These days my views about the nature of unnecessary economic activity call even that assessment into question, but we live and learn, eh?

Given my belief that engineers are the world’s problem solvers (leastways when it comes to physical systems), I was both taken-aback and dismayed when I encountered an article in The Guardian yesterday entitled Britain’s renewable energy targets are ‘physically impossible’, says study. It cites a study carried out by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers which insists that Britain needs to begin looking at some of the more esoteric geo-engineering solutions to Climate Change because there is no chance of installing enough renewable power in the required timescale.

They talk about a lack of construction and installation capacity for wind turbines (as one example) and instead suggest untested and, in many cases, still-theoretical solutions. This seems bizarre to me when the obvious response to a lack of turbine manufacturing and installation capacity is to add more, not throw our hands up in the air and suggest that it’s somehow easier and more realistic to explore theoretical carbon capture technologies than it is to build some more turbine factories and installation vessels.

Certainly research should continue into these new technologies, but if the Institution tells us that we run out of turbine manufacturing capacity in 2018, then I suggest that increasing that capacity before 2018 might be something we should explore rather than announcing it’s impossible.

In 1997 the Spanish government made a decision to begin a rapid expansion of wind energy. About a week ago, on November 8th, a milestone was reached when — for a period of five hours — wind power accounted for 50% of the electricity being produced in the country (link in Spanish). And they are far from finished building turbines.

The technical problems are not insurmountable. The rapid expansion of renewables is not impossible. It just requires the political will. And engineers willing to solve problems.

Posted in: Opinion