It’s an ill wind that blows no good

With demands on energy resources set to spiral in the next millennium, Michael Evamy looks at what designers can do to help make wind power a more attractive solution

The skyscraper, the high-speed train and the jet plane are undisputed landmarks of the 20th century, heroic symbols of progress shaped by engineers and designers. But, as the century draws to a close, there may be one more on the horizon. Love it or hate it, the modern windmill is the most monumental image to repeatedly appear in our landscape for decades. And it is likely to be appearing in ever greater numbers, so we should start loving it. Wind power is on the rise.

Some might argue that symbols of progress should embody state-of-the-art technology and not be based on principles of mechanical engineering established for centuries. But, therein lies precisely the reason why the wind turbine is so much of our time: because it embodies the re-evaluation of traditional technologies through the medium of modern materials that has become a mark of the post-space age. Hell, there’s even a windmill on Teletubbies.

But enough of the cultural commentary. So, why is it that we need windmills? Well, independent estimates say world energy demand could double by 2020, with much of the increase concentrated in India and China. If we are to avoid complete decimation of the ozone layer which could result from burning fossil fuels at current rates, sources of renewable energy have to play a significant part in supplying the world with electricity.

Europe and the US have pioneered the technologies to exploit the most promising renewable energy – wind power – and have to encourage its adoption by the world’s emerging economic superpowers. Though the numbers are still small, Europe is the biggest wind power market. Germany and Denmark lead, followed by Spain. Elsewhere, the UK, sitting in the Gulf Stream, offers much potential.

The EU’s immediate target is to have 2 per cent of its electricity demand supplied by wind power by 2005. That would allow seven 1000 megawatt coal-fired power stations to be decommissioned, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 million tonnes a year. According to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, wind energy, water power and other renewable energy sources could provide 25 to 30 per cent of Europe’s electricity by 2030, if the technologies continue to be developed. That’s an awful lot of windmills, whichever way you split it.

In order to produce 10 per cent of the UK’s electricity needs, several thousand wind turbines would be required. Groups like The Country Guardians, who make it their business to block plans for wind farms, would also be required to give up their opposition to such proposals.

The Country Guardians is headed, ironically, by Margaret Thatcher’s former chief of spin, Bernard Ingham. “Environmental campaigners that support these things are aesthetically dead,” Ingham has said. “They produce so little electricity that they hardly make any difference to the energy problem.” However, Ingham ignores the 70-plus per cent of people who regularly voice their support for wind power in public opinion polls.

Wind power supporters claim that a wind farm of 10 000 turbines could be supported on an area the size of Mull in the Inner Hebrides and still leave 99 per cent of that area available for current uses such as sheep farming. They add, too, that 250 years ago, there were 10 000 windmills in the UK. But the opposition is significant and highly-organised.

So, could design make wind power more acceptable to the Luddites? It’s a question that was put in 1995 to Leicester industrial design consultancy Jones Garrard – better known for designing high-speed trains – by ETSU, an agency of the Department of Trade and Industry. The conclusion Jones Garrard came to was that, beyond a bit of titivation, product design had no useful contribution to make.

“It is basically a tower and a turbine and some blades,” says partner Mike Rodber. “The blades are designed on computers and in wind tunnels; they are pure physics. There’s nothing the stylist would even attempt to do. It’s like the aeroplane wing: keep stylists and magic markers away from wings, please.”

But Jones Garrard went a couple of steps further. First, it looked at the design of wind farms. “There are two philosophies: lots of small wind farms or a few large ones. Something in the middle is the most likely solution, and that’s the prevailing philosophy. The planners we talked to did take a very responsible role in all this. They are quite keen on wind farms as long as they are properly controlled.”

In California, on the other hand, there are great stretches of desert that have been filled with ugly pylon-style windmills. Finally, Jones Garrard concluded that it was the public perception of wind power that needed to be redesigned.

“People needed to be educated that windmills were elegant, they weren’t noisy, in some cases they could actually enhance an environment, and people were very responsible about siting them. There was a lot of goodness in all that, but it was all being killed by people who just said, ‘No, we don’t want to listen.’ Design could help by creating the entire project, not just the odd pole or radius. And no one had considered it in this way before.” Needless to say, the report has been sat on ever since.

In the interim, approaches to wind farm design have begun to diverge. There is the choice of either treating windmills apologetically, as an intrusion into the landscape that must be minimised, or celebrating their monumental scale and elegance.

The February/March edition of US design magazine Metropolis reported on the Searsburg Wind Power Facility in Vermont, where a group of colossal, 132-feet-high turbines has been erected with fibreglass blades clad in black Teflon-type material to resist the formation of ice. The masts, towering above the pines of the Green Mountains, are not positioned anonymously along the lines of a grid, but have been arranged in an artful random fashion by an architectural practice. The result is described as breathtaking, suggesting “some mammoth earthworks or industrial performance art”. Something like a Stonehenge for the third millennium.

There are other wind power structures under development, apart from the conventional, horizontal-axis wind turbine. In New Zealand, Vortec Energy has developed the diffuser-augmented wind turbine: a 21-storey-high, hourglass-shaped metal shroud, with a set of rotor blades mounted inside, at its constriction (see right). The shroud accelerates the wind flow through the constriction, which drives the blades so fast they yield a power output six times higher than a turbine without a shroud. The drawbacks are the construction costs – which are three times higher than that of a HAWT; visual impact – the DAWT looks like a slimmed-down cooling tower lying on its side; and safety – the shroud is on a turntable to allow it to follow the wind direction, and if that gets stuck the forces of high winds on the shroud may tear it apart. Auckland could have done with a hillside of DAWTs in February, when a massive power cut brought the city to its knees.

A vertical-axis wind turbine (see above) is being developed by an Open University team led by Dr Derek Taylor, an architect, industrial designer and renewable energy expert. Unlike the HAWT, a VAWT can catch the wind from any direction without the need for re-orientation. The generator can be positioned on the ground instead of behind the propeller. Taylor’s VAWT has its blades tilted at a 45 degree angle, like a sycamore pod, which means it sweeps a V shape in the air and presents a triangular area to the wind instead of a circle.

“It’s that area that governs how much power is produced,” says Taylor. “With the triangular area, we can push more of the swept area into the higher wind speed zone and avoid the need for high towers. We want to produce turbines with relatively short towers, four or five metres high, and if you want to go bigger you just make the blades longer.” VAWTs could be the answer where large turbines are required, but visual impact is particularly sensitive.

Having seen his latest, single-bladed VAWT perform well in wind-tunnel tests, Taylor is on the hunt for industrial partners. He is also working on domestic-scale wind power systems, featuring curved roofs that push air through a Venturi slot in an upside-down wing, fitted with mini-turbines. And, since one of the toughest criticisms of wind power is that it is inefficient to transmit from rural areas to cities, Taylor is also developing a variation that can run up the edges of tall office buildings. “Wind power is bound to change architecture,” says Taylor, “if we are serious about renewable energy. If not housing estates that look like Cowes Week then, at least, curvier houses.”

The construction of four million new homes, that the Government is planning, offers the UK an opportunity to take a lead in getting CO2 -free electricity to households. Since we would be mad to ignore the potential of wind power, especially in blustery old Britain, we should be prepared for change in our rural and urban landscapes.

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