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Do Wind Turbines Need a Rethink?

They're still a threat to bats and birds and now they even have their own "syndrome". So, are there better ways to capture the wind?

wind turbines and moon

Imagine them without the blades. Photo courtesy of Flickr user “Caveman Chuck” Coker

Bet you didn’t know that last year a record amount of wind power was installed around the planet. The U.S. set a record, too, and, once again, became the world leader in adding new wind power, pushing China into second place for the year.

You’re not alone in being clueless about this. So was I. After all, this is a subject that gets about as much attention as 17-year-cicadas in a off year. What generally passes for energy coverage in the U.S. these days is the relentless cycle of gas-prices-up, gas-prices-down stories and the occasional foray into the natural-gas-fracking-is-a-blessing-or-is-it-a-curse? debate.

Okay, so wind power had a very good year in 2012. But that doesn’t mean that it’s gone mainstream. Hardly. It accounts for only 4 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. Plus, a big reason for the spike last year was that companies scrambled to finish projects before a federal tax credit expired at the end of December. (It was renewed as part of the end of the year tax deal, but only for one more year.)

Truth is, wind power still has some familiar challenges, such as the wind’s refusal to blow 24/7 and the not insubstantial death toll inflicted on bird and bat populations by twirling turbine blades–estimated to be hundreds of thousands killed a year. (Although that pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions that die from flying into buildings.)

And it has some new ones–”wind turbine syndrome,” for instance. That’s the name that’s been given to the ill effects that some people who live near wind farms have complained about–headaches, dizziness, ear pain, difficulty sleeping. NPR ran a story on it just the other day.

But many scientists and public health experts think the ailment is more psychosomatic than physiological. In fact, a recent study in Australia found that the syndrome was much more prevalent in communities where anti-wind farm groups spread warnings about negative health effects. In short, the research concluded, people were more likely to feel sick if they were told turbines could make them sick.

Lose the spin

That said, the industry could probably use a different approach to capturing the wind, something that didn’t involve huge spinning blades. Which explains why there’s so much interest in an innovation developed at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. It’s a wind turbine that not only has no blades, it has no moving parts, meaning little wear and tear.

It works like this. Instead of generating electrical energy from the mechanical energy of the rotating blades, this device, called a Ewicon (short for Electostatic Wind Energy Converter) skips the whole mechanical energy part.

It comprises a steel frame holding horizontal rows of insulated tubes, each of which has several electrodes and nozzles. The nozzles release positively charged water droplets and they are drawn to the negatively-charged electrodes. But when the wind blows, it creates resistance and that generates energy.

Only a few prototypes have been built so far, but the inventors, Johan Smit and Dhiradi Djairam, think that if their design takes off, it could be a boon to wind power in cities, where massive turbines aren’t an option.

Still another approach is what is known as Windstalk. Again no blades, but in this case, energy is generated by a small forest of more than a thousand narrow, 180-foot-tall poles packed tightly together. Within each hollow, carbon fiber pole, which narrows from base to tip, is a stack of small ceramic disks and between the disks are electrodes.

These discs and electrodes are connected to a cable which runs up the pole. When wind causes the ‘stalks’ to sway, the discs compress, generating a current.

The windstalks have been proposed as one of the sources of energy in Masdar City, the world’s first carbon-neutral and car-free city, being built near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Catching the breeze

Here are five other recent wind power stories. Chances are you haven’t heard them either.

1) And the wind…cries…chowda: It’s been 10 years in the works, but Cape Wind, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., took a big step forward last month when the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ signed a $2 billion agreement with the project’s developers. The plan is to build 130 turbines, each with blades 50 yards long, in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Cape Cod. If it stays on schedule–construction is supposed to begin late this year–Cape Wind could be lighting 100,000 to 200,000 homes by 2015.

2) That “beyond petroleum” thing…just kidding: It wasn’t all that long ago that British Petroleum changed its name to BP and then CEO John Browne made it clear that it stood for “beyond petroleum” and that the company was fully committed to begin shifting to renewable energy. But that was before that messy spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, the one that may cost BP as much as $42 billion. Earlier this week, the company announced that it plans to sell its wind energy interests in the U.S. It has investments in 16 wind farms in nine different states and hopes to earn as much as $3 billion by putting them on the market.

3) That’s because back East anything that big has a video screen: A study done by researchers at Purdue University found that a lot of people in Indiana actually like having wind farms in their communities. More than 80 percent of the people surveyed said they supported wind turbines, even in counties where local governments had opposed them. Some said wind farms gave rural areas a certain charm and one person noted that when friends visited from the East Coast, they couldn’t stop staring at them.

4) The answer, my friend, is bobbin’ in the wind: A new type of wind turbine that floats is being tested off the coast of Japan. Most turbines extend from pylons buried in the seabed, but this model, while anchored to bottom, has a hollow lower core that’s filled with seawater. And that keeps it upright. If it works, this approach could dramatically reduce costs of offshore wind farms.

5) Waste management is so 20th century: And in Italy, law enforcement authorities have seized the assets of a Sicilian businessman suspected of laundering money for the Mafia. The man under investigation, Vito Nicastri, is so big in the renewable energy business in Italy that he’s known as “Lord of the Wind.”

Video bonus: So why do wind turbines have to be so big? Here’s a nice, little video on how a wind farm off the Dutch coast works.

Video bonus bonus: And for a change of pace, here’s a tutorial on how Windstalk would work.

More from Smithsonian.com

When Building New Power Plants, Wind Can Be Cheaper Than Coal

Scientists Save Bats and Birds From Wind Turbine Slaughter

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