Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Supplement to Solar: Windmill Generators Make Green Electricity

There's a picture on their webpage. It's a very small turbine on a very high tower. Beautiful though.

KPBS reporter Alison St John went back to Scotland recently to visit her brother Hugh, who lives on the west coast in a small community called Scoraig. It’s a remote spot, with no roads and no electricity, except what’s generated by wind power. Here’s her audio postcard of Hugh and his windmill.

Scoraig is a lovely place on the edge of a loch. Hugh took me out to the back of his house where his windmill was spinning gently in the breeze.

Alison St John: So this is the windmill that powers your whole house?
Hugh: Yes that’s right.

St John: It’s very quiet.

Hugh: It does have a slight humming noise -- a little musical note that if you appreciate that that’s generating free energy, is music to your ears. Obviously in stronger winds that can turn into a bit of a roar.

This being Scotland, stronger winds happen quite often, whipping the windmill blades to a blur.

St John: How tall is it?

Hugh: This one is about 75 feet tall, the reason being that the trees around are 40 feet tall, and it’s necessary to be well above the trees to catch the best wind energy. It really does pay off to have a tall tower. There’s no point in putting a windmill in a situation where there’s not enough wind. It’s like putting a solar panel in the shade.

St John: So that must be one of the most tricky things: deciding in the first place is if a windmill is going to work for you.

Hugh: Yes, it’s an area where a lot of people have got it quite badly wrong. Manufacturers are not really motivated to argue with you if you say you’ve got enough wind they’ll probably just go ahead a sell you the machinery, so it pays to have independent advice.

St John: Well what about birds?

Hugh: Well, wind turbines do kill birds; in my 30 years of experience I’ve only ever come across two dead birds; I have had anecdotes of situations where there have been multiple casualties, just due to the way the machines been sited and due to the habits of the birds in that particular area, but if you look at bird casualties overall compared to birds flying into windows, birds being driven into by vehicles, flying into power lines and even being massacred by domestic cats -- the amount of birds that are killed by wind turbines is pretty much insignificant.

St John: OK, so how much power does this generate?

Hugh: The power generated in kilowatts is much less important than the energy generated over time because it’s stored in batteries. In our house we use about five or six kilowatt hours of electrical energy a day. That’s a bit less than the UK average and quite substantially less than the US average which is more like 20 or 30 kilowatt hours a day.

Inside Hugh’s house, his wife Jytte is in the kitchen where there’s no shortage of electrical appliances.

Jytte: The microwave is electric, obviously, there’s the toaster, the food processor, but all these things you use for a very short time.

St John: Hugh was saying you might wait to vacuum till it was a bit windier?

Jytte: Yeah, it’s a good excuse not to do the washing if it’s not windy? ::laughs::

St John: And you’ve got a television; you can watch that whenever you want right?

Jytte: Yes we use it as an excuse to stop the kids from watching too much telly. The little ones, we say ‘there isn’t enough electricity to watch TV right now.’ But it’s really an excuse because it doesn’t really use that much.

Hugh and Jytte have lived off wind power for many years but Hugh admits it’s not for everyone.

St John: So are there any arguments for someone in somewhere like California to be using wind energy on a domestic basis?

Hugh: Well I would say yes. That’s a scenario where a lower cost wind system as a backup to a solar system does actually make sense, provided that whoever is buying it does look carefully at whether there is enough wind to make it worth the investment. And very often it will be cheaper to run a generator during those periods when there isn’t so much sun, but that’s a lot less satisfying than using renewable energy. When things are going well it’s completely maintenance-free, you can just enjoy the benefits and listen to the sweet music of electricity being generated from the wind.

That was KPBS reporter Alison St John’s brother Hugh, who is a small wind turbine consultant living on the west coast of Scotland.

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