Taking the Breeze: Electricity: New Technologies Make Europe Take Another Look at Wind as a Power Source

Article excerpt

Byline: William Underhill

The natives of Lewis know wind--sometimes too well. Every winter the Atlantic gales come blasting across the northern tip of Scotland's Outer Hebrides. The wind hardly slows down after striking land; in the island's marshy interior, gusts regularly exceed 100 miles an hour. Everyone stays indoors but the sheep. Tourists arrive in summer, lured by mild temperatures and wide expanses of unspoiled countryside; even so, there's rarely a calm day. "The weather here is changeable," says Nigel Scott, a spokesman for the local government. "But the wind is constant."

The brutal climate could finally be Lewis's salvation. The place has been growing poorer and more desolate for generations, as young people seek sunnier prospects elsewhere. But now the energy industry has discovered the storm-swept island. The multinational engineering and construction giant AMEC and the electricity generator British Energy are talking about plans to erect some 300 outsize wind turbines across a few thousand acres of moorland and peat bog. If the $700 million project goes through, the array will be Europe's largest wind farm, capable of churning out roughly 1 percent of Britain's total electrical needs--and generating some badly needed jobs and cash for the people of Lewis. "We have been slowly bleeding to death," says Iain McIver of the Stornoway Trust, the proposed site's owners. "The benefits from this project will continue to flow for as long as the wind blows over the Western Isles."

It sounds like the answer to a lot of prayers--and not only on Lewis. Enthusiasts around the world call wind a perfect alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear power: safe, inexhaustible and free. "This is simply one of the cheapest ways of reducing our output of greenhouse gases," says Christian Kjaer of the Brussels-based European Wind Energy Association. Still, not everyone is such a fan. "I find it incredible that organizations which describe themselves as 'Green' or 'Friends of the Earth' can contemplate the ravage of our hills with these industrial installations," says Margaret Thatcher's former press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham, a champion of nuclear power. Even environmentalists confess to a few reservations. "The wind industry is as capable of environmental insensitivity as any other," says Roger Higman, a senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth.

The energy industry isn't bothered by such quibbles. For the last seven years the world market for wind turbines has grown by an average of 40 percent annually. Last year alone, generating capacity worldwide jumped by almost a third. The more wind plants you build, the cheaper and more powerful you can make them. Turbine makers are now mass-producing giant machines--the rotors' 211-foot diameter is wider than the wingspan of a jumbo jet--that once existed only in theory. Today one standard-issue turbine can produce at least 1 megawatt of power, more than double the typical model's output of 20 years ago and enough to provide electricity for as many as 800 modern households. The next generation, capable of more than twice that output, is already emerging.

The new turbines are not just bigger; they're smarter. The basic design, a triple-vaned rotor atop a vertical shaft, hasn't changed much in 50 years. The big difference is that the towers are taller; the new ones rise almost 300 feet above the ground. The higher they go, the stronger and steadier are the winds they catch. But scientists keep tweaking the specs in subtler ways, too. Tough, light structural materials have been borrowed from the aeronautics industry. Likewise for "vortex generators," tiny fins added to the surfaces of wind rotors and aircraft wings. They induce turbulence that helps prevent stalling at low speeds. Best of all for people who live nearby, improved design on the latest models has cut noise to a relative whisper.

Still, some nature lovers hate wind power. …