From Inside a Turbine: A Wind Power Museum Shows Tech Maturity

The most impressive thing about standing at the foot of a Vestas V47 wind turbine—or looking out from inside the turbine tower itself—is the thought that this model isn't even all that big. The V47 turbine at the American Wind Power Center, a wind energy museum in Lubbock, Texas, has a capacity of 660 kilowatts. But it is dwarfed by the 3- and 5-megawatt turbines that populate modern large wind farms.

The V47, which provides far more power than the center itself uses (they sell most of it back to the grid), in turn dwarfs the dozens of other windmills that dot the museum's grounds. There are modern micro-turbines spinning frantically atop 9-meter towers, plush varying sizes of the Eclipse-style windmills that used to dominate the Plains, and giant modern turbine blades lying on the ground, all centered around the massive V47 towering above. (To give a sense of its scale, the museum's staff says that when ice that forms on the blades in the winter begins to thaw, the turbine has been known to toss ice chunks clear across the property to the far side of the museum, dozens of meters away.)

But the most striking thing one notices during a visit here is that wind energy is clearly very, very old. Solar cells were conceived of in the 19th century, without practical uses for them until well into the 20th; the traditional windmills one imagines dotting the Dutch countryside were invented in the 12th century. The replica windmill at the Wind Power Center (top image) is a copy of one that would have been used in the 1600s.

We talk of wind energy as if it is a new thing that only needs to find its way off the ground in order to succeed, and of course there is always room to improve the technology. But harnessing the wind is not a new concept; wind turbines, especially land-based, industrial-scale devices, are a remarkably mature technology. The technical challenges as we scale up have more to do with the manufacturing process itself (i.e., it is not easy to make 80-meter long one-piece blades) than with figuring out how best to generate electricity from the wind. That is not to say, of course, that the wind industry isn't still nascent; if the government pulls support for wind farm development at the end of this year, as it is threatening to do, the boom in wind power could end up in a museum as well.

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