Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Our quixotic windmills

It has been a hard year for the promoters of wind energy. Though the economic viability of the windmills has improved considerably as oil has become more expensive, they have had to fight many battles on the environmental front which must have been somewhat surprising for these valiant champions of the green. Besides the aesthetics, where people still cannot make up their mind whether they are impressive or horrendous, over the last year we have read a lot about the problems of their causing death of birds and bats. But if they thought that was it, they had better prepare themselves since there is an ongoing study that seeks to measure the impact of the windmills when and if there would be enough of them to produce 5% of the world’s electrical needs. That would signify, worldwide, hundreds of thousands of them.

From the initial results that have been privately circulated, the study has identified some new threats never even thought of before but that could become insurmountable hurdles. The first is whether the friction produced by the wind will in itself increase global warming. Second, as the windmills are located in windy areas and therefore not equally distributed over the world, there is the possibility that the world could turn some degrees over its axle, a bit like the effect of the recent mega earthquake that produced the tsunami. The final threat identified is that the windmills, by acting like some big sails, could accelerate the rotation of our planet. Luckily this final concern has already been eliminated as the calculations showed that this effect was to be neutralized by less wind impacting mountains and other places. Nonetheless, by just posing the argument it has also opened problems of a legal nature. For example, neighboring countries might complain that the windmills are literarily taking the wind out of their sails. The final problem identified but that lies outside the scope of the current study is related to what will happen to the ecology of previously windy area when the winds are gone.

As this year we celebrate Cervantes’ Don Quixote we cannot but reflect on how the modern windmills are fighting a quixotic war on their own.

P.S. Early one morning in 2004 I met with some World Bank staff who wanted to tell me about the details of an alternative-energy project—windmills. Coming from an oil-producing country, in jest I improvised the above have-you-heard-the news-about-windmills story, and to my delight, some fell for it. Later for April Fool’s Day I sent it out to some of my knowledgeable friends. To my surprise instead of laughter, many of the answers were of a yes-this-needs-to-be-better-researched nature. Could it really be that my joke contains some truths?