Wind — top down engineering versus crafts tradition

In the summer of 1979, engineers from US aerospace and energy agencies assembled a $50 million utility-scale wind turbine on an alpine meadow overlooking the college town of Boone, North Carolina.  The 100 foot blades on the Mod-1 turbine poured two megawatts of electricity into the grid – enough to power about 800 homes. Hopeful politicians hailed wind energy as a new way to fight dependence on foreign petroleum, and the message resonated with a public still suffering from the insecurities of the Arab oil embargo.

NASA's 2 MW, $50 million wind turbine, built 1979, torn down 1983

Yet as the blades began turning in the Appalachian wind, engineers from NASA, the Department of Energy, and General Electric had already realized that the optimism was misplaced.  They knew the Mod1 had serious design flaws, such as its strong low-frequency sounds and easily cracked aluminum blades. The wind turbine was dismantled within two years, and most of the subsequent experiments in the MOD series were similar failures. By the turn of the 21st century, the hope of creating an American wind turbine manufacturing industry had all but collapsed.

Around this same time, at a high school near the west coast of Denmark, a very different kind of wind project was under way.

With technical help from Danish engineering companies, four hundred students from the Tvind school built a similar two-megawatt wind turbine from second-hand parts at a cost of about $500,000 – one percent of the cost of the Boone windmill.  The volunteer students and teachers hoped to pioneer an alternative to nuclear and coal power. The students tied their own reinforcing steel, mixed their own concrete, and created their own factory to cast fiberglass blades. The teachers supervised, contributed labor and even took deductions from their paychecks to keep the project going. The Tvind turbine is still in operation today (January 2011), and can be located by searching Google Earth.

Tvind 2 MW windmill, built in 1978 with $50,000

The Tvind project was an example of the Danish wind energy industry’s “handverk” crafts tradition in wind technology, which began in 1891 with experiments by Danish scientist Paul la Cour.  By the early 21st century, nearly half the world’s wind turbines were manufactured in Denmark, and most of the rest were influenced by Danish designs.

The contrast between the high-tech American failure and the low-tech Danish success illustrates some of the underlying themes in the history of sustainable energy technology, including complexity bias, path dependency and social construction versus technological determinism, as we will see in other chapters.

Even more significantly, the arguments against sustainable energy often point to examples of its impractical nature. If wind power “didn’t work” in the Boone, NC project., with some of America’s best scientists, how could it work elsewhere?

The underlying premise of this view was championed in the 19th century by Charles Beard, and the idea is that technologies have inherent characteristics that determine their trajectory outside of any social or political context.  As one US Chamber of Commerce official put it in 2010,  the public “doesn’t get to choose” its technologies; they are pre-determined by the intrinsic characteristics of the technologies themselves.

Others have found this view problematic.  In 1949, Presidential science advisor Vannevar Bush said that a defining characteristic of a democracy is the influence of public opinion in the choice of technological paths. In other words, the social construction of a technology is more important than the apparent nature of the technologies themselves.

What’s historically interesting about this dialogue between determinism and social construction is that it can be found throughout the industrial revolution, especially in discussions about sustainable energy, resource depletion and long-term public interest investments.

In a 1921 article entitled “The Chemists Race to Save Civilization,” Edwin Slosson said:   “Nations are already beginning to snatch at coal and oil as starving children quarrel over crusts. The fate of civilization hangs upon a race against time…   Yet the search for new sources of energy would mean that sometime in the future nations may go to war for waterfalls, for the overheated and over-humid lands of the tropics where alcohol and oil may be produced as motor fuel, or for arid deserts where sun engines may be set up.”

These points must sound familiar to those who have followed energy and environmental debates in the late 20th century.   E.F. Schumacher, Langon Winner, Amory Lovins and others argued in favor of public choice of technologies, in contrast to the deterministic and market-oriented views of Walter Wriston and others within industry and the conservative political movement.

The echoes of these ideas are present in modern discussions about sustainable energy – for example, the hundred-billion dollar Desertec solar project in North Africa, or the international trade standards controversy about importing biofuels from tropical nations.

Unfortunately, the link to the past is often missing in modern discussions about sustainable energy, and histories of energy are dominated by deterministic views of traditional energy technologies.  Yet if history is any guide, we know that success often turns into failure, and the roads not taken in the past may need to be re-mapped in order to help re-envision the future.

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About Bill Kovarik

Bill Kovarik is a journalist, historian and Professor of Communication at Radford University in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwestern Virginia. He has worked with wire services, daily newspapers, national news magazines, environmental publications and new media projects. He teaches science and environment writing, journalism, web design, media history media law, and peace studies. His latest book, Revolutions in Communication, spans six centuries from the Gutenberg Bible to the Wikileaks controversy. He is working on openly licensed textbooks in First Amendment law and visual communication.
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