Wind powered factories: history (and future) of industrial windmills

This is a guest post by Kris De Decker. It was previously published by Low-tech Magazine (a very interesting web magazine) and by Energy Bulletin.

Fig. 1

In the 1930s and 1940s, decades after steam engines had made wind power obsolete, Dutch researchers obstinately kept improving the – already very sophisticated – traditional windmill. The results were spectacular, and there is no doubt that today an army of ecogeeks could improve them even further. Would it make sense to revive the industrial windmill and again convert kinetic energy directly into mechanical energy?

The Netherlands had 5 times more windmills in 1850 than it has wind turbines today.

More than 900 years ago, medieval Europe became the first large civilisation not to be run by human muscle power. Thousands and thousands of windmills and waterwheels, backed up by animal power, transformed industry and society radically. It was an industrial revolution entirely powered by renewable energy – something that we can (and do) only dream of today. Wind and water powered mills were in essence the first real factories in human history. They consisted of a building, a power source, machinery and employees, and out of them came a product.

Fig. 2

Windmills and waterwheels were not new technologies – both machines appeared already in Antiquity and the ones used in the early Middle Ages were technically no different from those. However, ancient civilisations like the Greeks and the Romans hardly used them, possibly because of religious reasons and because of a large enough reservoir of human slave labour.

Water versus wind

Water powered mills were – overall – more important and numerous than windmills. This is logical since they are a simpler and more reliable technology; the flow of a river might change according to the seasons, but generally a river always contains water. Moreover, by making use of canals and sluice gates the flow of water could be precisely controlled to provide the speed or load required by the gearwork inside the factory.

The wind, on the other hand, does not always blow. When it does, wind velocity and direction can change at any moment and windmills had no efficient method to control the strength of the wind – at least not in early medieval times. Water powered mills appeared in Europe in large amounts from the end of the 11th century onwards and only 200 years later almost all available energy in rivers and streams was put to use.

However, not all regions were suited for watermills. The reasons could be that they did not have sufficient water resources (like Spain), that they were too flat and their rivers did not have enough flow (like the Netherlands and the downlands of England) or that rivers generally froze during winter (like in Scandinavia, Russia and parts of Germany). In these countries, windmills appeared in the 13th century, possibly earlier, and spread fast. Later, also regions that had abundant water resources constructed windmills, to relieve the pressure on rivers and streams.

How many windmills?

Fig. 3

The amount of windmills in early medieval times remains unknown, because the few inventories that could be studied do not distinguish between water and wind powered mills. For instance, we know that there were between 10,000 and 12,000 mills in the UK in 1300, but we do not know how many of them were wind powered (it must have been a minority). All we have are data on individual windmills, which start to appear at the end of the 1200s. Only in the 1700s and 1800s, when windmill technology really caught on, more accurate inventories appear.

In 1750, there were 6,000 to 8,000 windmills in the Netherlands, in 1850 there were 9,000 of them. For comparison, this is almost 5 times as much as there are wind turbines in the Netherlands today (1,974 turbines as of September 2009). In the UK there were 5,000 to 10,000 windmills in 1820. France had 8,700 windmills (and 37,000 watermills) in 1847.

Fig. 4

Germany had 18,242 windmills in 1895 (compared to around 18,000 wind turbines today) and Finland had 20,000 windmills in 1900. Portugal, Spain, several Mediterranean islands and many Eastern European and Scandinavian countries had many windmills, too. The total amount of wind powered mills in Europe was estimated to be around 200,000 (at its peak), compared to some 500,000 waterwheels. Windmills were built in the countryside and in cities, and even on the walls of castles and fortifications in order to catch more wind.

Initially, the only applications of windmills were the grinding of grain and (to a lesser extent) the pumping of water and the draining of lowland areas (for which they were connected to a waterwheel working in reverse – the scoopwheel - or to an Archimedean screw).

Around 1600, many new industrial applications of windmills appeared: saw mills, paper mills, mustard mills, tobacco mills, ...

Fig. 5

Bread and oats were the staple diet of the Middle Ages (meat, fish and vegetables were only available to the rich) and all that grain had to be crushed or ground. It took one person with a hand mill two hours a day to grind enough flour for an average family. Corn windmills were also used to make Dutch gin and other liquors.

The grinding of grain remained the most important use of windmills - as late as 1900, the entire wheat harvest of Northern Europe was ground by windmills in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. However, around 1600 many new applications of windmills appeared. 

New applications

Windmills were used for hulling barley and rice, grinding malt, pressing olives to olive oil, and pressing coleseed, linseed, rapeseed and hempseed for cooking and lighting. There were also cocoa mills, mustard mills and pepper mills (also used for other spices), even tobacco mills and snuff mills.

Besides food production, two other major applications of windmill technology were the production of paper (using ropes and sails from ships as a raw material) and the sawing of wood.

Windmills were also crushing chalk (to make cement), grinding mortar, draining mines, ventilating mineshafts (and even a prison), polishing glass and making gunpowder.

Textiles were another industry in which wind power came to the rescue: windmills were crushing seeds from flax (to make linen), preparing hemp fibres (to produce ropes and sailcloth), fulling cloth (to create soft wool), making paint and tanning and dying animal skins.

The Zaan district

One of the most spectacular developments of industrial wind power technology occurred in the Zaan district, a region situated just above Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Although the area is surrounded by water, the potential of water power was limited because the land is as flat as it can be and so the flow of the rivers is low. The wind, on the other hand, is strong. Many of the applications of windmills described above appeared first (and sometimes only) in the Zaan district.

Fig. 6

It is said that the region was the world’s first industrialized area. From 1600 to 1750, when the Netherlands became an important economical power, around 1,000 windmills were built and operated here (see Fig. 6). Mills were given names, just like ships.

A vital element of the wind powered industry in the Zaan district was the saw mill. Wood was required to construct houses, sluices, ships and of course more windmills. Hand sawing was a very laborious task and windmills greatly reduced the time needed for the process. With hand sawing, 60 beams or trunks would take 120 working days, with wind power this only took 4 to 5 days (see Fig. 7, more here).

The first sawmill ("Het juffertje" or "The missy") was built in the town of Zaandam by Cornelis Corneliszoon in 1596. By 1630, there were 83 sawmills north of Amsterdam, of which 53 were located in the Zaan district. The peak was reached in 1731 when there were 450 sawmills in the Netherlands, 256 of them in the Zaan district. Eventually even the crane of these mills, to haul up the timber, was driven by the sails.

Another early industrial application of wind power in the Zaan district was the production of paper – this was, after all, the era in which the printing press appeared. The first papermaking windmill ("De Gans" or "The Goose") dates from 1605 and by 1740 there were 40 of them. In the middle of the 17th century, the Dutch paper mill was substantially improved, which enabled it to make whiter paper and make it faster.

Fig. 7

One remaining example is “De Schoolmeester” ("The Teacher"), built in 1692 (see the introductory picture [Fig. 8] and the interior below). Wind powered paper mills were rare in other countries, but water powered versions already appeared in the 11th century and became quite common – in England there were 417 of them in 1800.

In saw mills, even the crane to haul up the timber was driven by the sails.

Other remarkable windmills in the Zaan district were snuff and tobacco mills (38 in 1795), oil mills (140 in 1731), barley hulling mills (65 in 1731), dyestuff mills (21 in 1731) and hemp mills (20 in 1731). The Dutch also built hundreds of windmills in the West Indies for crushing sugar cane. Relatively few of the 1,000 surviving windmills in the Netherlands are industrial windmills - drainage and corn mills remained economically viable much longer.

Fig. 8

Backup power: animals

In many other European countries, similar functions were mainly performed by watermills. However, not all activities powered by waterwheels could be powered by sails. The fickleness of the wind made windmills unsuited for processes that required a very steady and reliable power output, like metal making, spinning, tool-sharpening or extracting minerals from mines.

In countries where the potential of water power was insufficient, some of these activities were powered by animals, mainly horses. Horses were also used as a backup power in long periods of calm, in order to guarantee delivery. For instance, in the Netherlands in 1850, there were 1,800 windmills for the grinding of corn, but also 1,300 horsemills for the grinding of buckwheat – a grain that required a more steady power source for grinding.

Post mills and tower mills

Early medieval windmills were simple machines, derived from waterwheels. During the following centuries, however, windmills became a very sophisticated technology. Windmills are much more complicated machines than waterwheels because wind velocity and speed change continually. Earlier windmills in Iran and Afghanistan were of the horizontal (vertical-axis) type, and thus did not have to adapt to changes in wind direction. But these machines, which were much less efficient, were never used in Europe.

Fig. 9

Initially, medieval millwrights solved the problem of varying wind direction by positioning the whole mill on a central spindle so that it could be turned to face the wind. This was the so-called “post mill” (see Fig. 9). Around the 1400s, a second type of windmill appeared, in which only the cap and sails rotated and the body of the mill remained stationary. This was the so-called “tower mill”, which was later perfected by the Dutch (see Fig. 10).

Fig. 10

Tower mills were also the dominant type around the Mediterranean, but these were less efficient machines with very different sails. Because it was stationary, the main body of a tower mill could be constructed from stone or brick, and thus they were more sturdily built. Both types continued to be in use, but many post mills were replaced by tower mills from the 1600s to the 1800s.

Turning the sails into the wind

Fig. 11

These days, wind turbines are turned into the wind automatically by means of electronic equipment. When the wind becomes too strong, the electronics turn the blades out of the wind so they are not blown to smithereens. Medieval millwrights had no microchips and so they had to find another solution.

For many centuries, windmills were turned into the wind by mere muscle power. This was done by lifting a large tailpole at the back of the mill (hooked up to the tail ladder in the case of a post mill), moving it to the required position, and fixing it again at one of the twelve anchor posts sunk into the ground in a circle around the mill.

This was not an easy task, because the body of a post mill had to be turned with the weight of all the machinery inside. Some mills were equipped with a winch at the end of the tailpole, riding on a circular track, which made the task a bit easier. The cap of tower mills was turned in a similar fashion, by means of a much longer tailpole - reaching to the ground (Fig. 11) or to the terrace in the case of a tower mill with a stage (here). Vent holes were drilled in the sides of the body of the mill – when the wind started blowing through one of these holes, the miller knew that wind direction had changed.

Adjusting the sails: a daunting task

Adapting to variations in wind velocity was even more challenging. The factory machinery inside the mill required a rather precise operating speed. For instance, corn mills worked best at 50 to 60 sail revolutions per minute. Once surpassing 80 sail revolutions per minute the grain would burn. Another risk was that when sails started turning too fast, the windmill could be destroyed.

Fig. 12

Again, for centuries, the miller had to do this by hand. Basically, there were two ways to adjust to changing wind speeds. Minor differences in wind velocity could be absorbed inside the mill, by increasing or decreasing the load. For instance, in a corn mill, adapting to a higher wind speed could be done by widening the gap between the milling stones and adding more grain. Because the load is increased, the amount of revolutions of the sails remains more or less the same in spite of the higher wind speed.

When the changes in wind speed became too large, however, the miller had no choice but to get out of the mill and adjust the sails. Traditional windmills were not equipped with blades, but with sails – mostly a wooden framework covered with canvas (in colder climates the canvas was generally replaced by slats of wood, which were easier to handle in freezing conditions).

Reefing two or even four sails, or reducing sail area were very effective methods to adjust to higher wind speeds, but these must have been daunting tasks in high winds. At least two sails had to be brought within a vertical position and stopped so that the miller, climbing the sail, could take off the cloth. If the brake failed while the miller was in the sail, he would be in for a spectacular ride. Tying and reefing all four sails was also a standard procedure at the beginning and end of each working day.

During the second half of the eighteenth century, several complex but effective techniques were developed that made it possible for a traditional windmill to be left mostly unattended

During the second half of the eighteenth century, several complex but effective techniques were developed that made it possible for a traditional wind mill to be left mostly unattended, at least when it concerned changes in wind speed and direction. In 1745, the English blacksmith Edmund Lee invented the "self-regulating wind machine" or "winding", a device that automatically adapted the positioning of the windmill to the direction of the wind. It consisted of a fantail (two fantails for larger windmills) and a gearwork (Fig. 13).

Fig. 13

A fantail can be described as an auxiliary windmill that is mounted behind the main sails, at a right angle to them. If the direction of the wind changes, it hits the fantail, turning the mill until the main sails are again perpendicular to the wind.

Fig. 14

The fantail is geared down to a travelling wheel in the cap of the tower (in case of a tower mill, above) or around the building (in case of a post mill, see picture). Fantails were later used for wind-powered water pumps in the US, but because these machines were much lighter there was no need for a gearwork to turn them.

The winding not only made the handling of the mill much easier, it also augmented the power output. A substantial amount of power can get lost because of slight variations in the wind direction, but the miller did not always have the time (or the will) to turn the windmill following every minor change.

Automatic control: spring and patent sails

Fig. 15

Around the same time as the fantail and winding were invented, mechanisms started to appear that were aimed at automatically adapting the sails to varying wind speeds. This led to the development of the so-called “spring-sail” in 1772, invented by Scottish millwright Andrew Meikle. On a spring sail, the sailcloth is replaced by dozens of shutters like those of a Venetian blind. Each shutter is controlled by a spring.

Fig. 16

As the wind increases, it overcomes the force of the spring and the shutter will open, letting the wind through and slowing down the sails. The stronger the wind, the more the shutters will open. When the wind speed decreases, the shutters will be closed by the spring, again forming one uninterrupted surface. All of this results in having sails with a similar rotation speed at any wind velocity.

The problem with spring-sails is that the tensions of the springs (which are all connected to each other by means of a long pole) have to be adjusted beforehand depending on the expected wind speed and the power needed. Once set, it is impossible to make adjustments while the sails are turning.

Fig. 17

This was solved in 1789 by Stephen Hooper, who introduced blinds that could be adjusted with a manual chain from the ground without stopping the mill ("roller reefing sails", Figure 17). However, the system was too complicated. The final improvement to self-reefing sails came in 1807 when William Cubit attached counterweights to the adjustment chain of spring sails, making the control of the sails fully automatic without the complexity of the roller reefing method – these were called “patent sails” (Fig. 15).

Berton sails

The only problem left was that patent sails had a lower efficiency than normal sails, and as a result it was common to combine two patent sails with two normal sails as a compromise between handling and efficiency. In 1848, the Frenchman Berton replaced the many small shutters by fewer longitudinal shutters operating according to the same principle, an intriguing method that gave a sturdier construction and a better aerodynamic performance ("Berton Sails", see Fig. 18).

Moreover, the system could be adjusted by the miller from inside the cap of the mill. In 1860, Catchpole introduced air brakes, which were a very effective means to automatically slowing down the sails in a gale. Inside the mill, an automatic centrifugal governor replaced the manual adapting of the distance between the milling stones.

Of course, self-reefing sails and other automatic systems did not solve the problem of windless days - that is why the miller worked day and night when there was a good breeze. Millers were even exempt from Sunday's rest.

Fig. 18

As was the case with the fantail, self-reefing sails did not only improve the handling of the windmill, but also the power output. Because there was no longer a need for the miller to stand on the ground to fix or unfurl the sails, the wind shaft could be installed much higher so that the mill could benefit from higher wind speeds (the Dutch had solved this issue before by constructing tower mills where the sails could be reefed from a stage at a higher level).

Power output of a windmill

Another important improvement was the introduction of cast iron for the manufacture of the gearwork. This happened in 1755, only ten years after the introduction of the winding, by John Smeaton. For centuries, all gears inside the mill were made of wood. This resulted in serious energy losses.

Measurements performed by the Dutch in the 1930s, on a drainage windmill constructed in 1648, showed that the mill generated around 40 horsepower at the windshaft but only 15.6 horsepower at the machines – an efficiency of only 39 percent. Almost two thirds of the generated power was lost in the transmission. Drainage mills had a slightly higher efficiency of around 50 percent.

Windmills with wood gearings had an efficiency of only 39 percent

Fig. 19

The use of cast-iron (and later iron) did not only improve the efficiency of the gearwork, but also allowed for the construction of larger windmills. The use of wood limited the diameter of the sails to around 30 meters – already common in the 1600s.

The maximum length of a stock (more than twice the length of one sail) was around 30 metres (100 feet) because there were no larger trunks available. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century iron stocks came to be used for the sails and for the windshaft.

Innovations came too late

Unfortunately, the many important improvements of windmill technology came too late. Already at the end of the 1700s, around the same time that these innovations appeared, the first corn mill switched from wind power to steam power – and to the black smoke that came with it. Around 1850, steam powered mills became more common and the importance of windmills started to decline. To make things worse, fantails, self-reefing sails and iron stiffening were slow to catch on - in many countries and regions they were never even used.

Fig. 20

Berton sails were only applied in France, patent sails were mainly used in England. Although iron stocks allowed for the construction of larger sails, that never happened. The highest tower mill ever constructed was made entirely out of wood. It was standing in the Netherlands and was constructed in 1899 ("De Hoop" or "The Hope" in Prinsenhagen, now the city of Breda). It stood 38 metres (125 ft) tall, with sails around 27 metres (88.5 ft) in diameter. The cap and sails were removed in 1929 but the tower is still there.

Largest windmill ever built

The two Dutch windmills with the largest sail diameter are standing in the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, built between 1903 and 1905. The largest one, the "Murphy Windmill", stands 29 metres (95 ft) tall with sails 35 metres (114 ft) across. The stocks were cut from one single log - the US had larger trees. But its gearwork is made entirely of cast iron and that shows: the mill pumped up to 150,000 litres (40,000 gallons) of water per day to irrigate the park. The Murphy Mill was replaced by an electrical engine some years later and fell into disrepair.

The decline of the windmill was slow, especially in the Netherlands - the Dutch even preferred windmills with auxiliary steam engines over fully steam powered mills. More than 6 million wind powered waterpumps (with annular sails) would be built in the United States between the 1850s and the 1930s, but elsewhere few windmills were erected after 1900. The attention shifted to wind turbines generating electricity, and that has remained so ever since.

Impressive improvements in the 1920s and 1930s

In the 1920s and 1930s, however, when windmills had stopped working almost everywhere in Europe, the Dutch started a research program that led to the final development of the classical windmill. In 1923, the “Dutch Windmill Society” was founded, with the mission to improve the performance of windmills generating mechanical energy. Among the members were famous millwright builders like the Dekker Brothers. The results were spectacular.

The maximum power output of a windmill was doubled from 50 to 100 horsepower at the end of the 1920s.

Through the application of aeronautical principles and the use of sheet metal (basically equipping traditional windmills with sails somewhat similar to the blades of modern wind turbines) the maximum power output of a windmill was doubled from 50 to 100 horsepower at the end of the 1920s.

Fig. 21

More than 70 windmills were equipped with the new "Dekkerized sails" during the following decade. Moreover, improvements in the gearwork slashed energy losses and allowed for windmills to generate much more power at lower wind speeds.

Doubling energy output

Fig. 22

Tests conducted in 1939 by the “Prinsenmolen Committee” showed that an improved windmill would start to turn with a wind speed of 3.5 to 4 m/s (7.75 to 9 mph) compared to 5 to 6 m/s (11 to 13.5 mph) for the old design. At 5.5 m/s (12.5 mph) their power was found to be equal to that of a normal mill at 8 m/s (18 mph).

This meant that while a traditional windmill could be worked for around 2,671 hours per year in the Netherlands, the new streamlined design could be operated for 4,442 hours per year – more or less doubling the annual energy output.

The improved windmill had two advantages; a greater output at a given wind speed, and longer working hours by utilizing lighter winds. The gain was especially found in lower wind speeds, because with stronger winds the sails of the improved windmill had to be reefed sooner.

Fig. 23

More improvements during the 1930s by Chris van Bussel, Kurt Bilau, G.J. Ten Have, Van Riet, P.L. Fauël (Fig. 23), Sabinin and Yurieff led to a windmill, installed in 1940 and demolished in 1960, with up to two and a half times the power output of windmills with traditional sails: 125 horsepower.

Next, the Second World War stopped further investigations and after the war, like the rest of the world, the Dutch shifted their attention to the generation of electricity.

Revert to traditional windmills?

Today, windmills and waterwheels that convert kinetic energy directly into mechanical energy are considered obsolete, and while some have survived, few of them have any commercial function in developed countries. Wind turbines now turn renewable energy into electricity, which might later be converted back to mechanical energy.

Of course it is impossible to operate a flat screen television or a laptop with mechanical energy, but many other processes could in principle still be driven in that old-fashioned way. Grain still has to be ground, wood still has to be sawn, seeds still have to be pressed, but now we use electricity to drive machines that perform the same processes. This electricity can be generated by means of modern wind turbines, or other renewable energy sources, and that is the future that everybody has in mind.

Embodied energy

However, there are some reasons that might make it interesting to revert to a direct conversion from kinetic to mechanical energy. Planting a few million high-tech wind turbines, covering deserts with solar plants and developing a smart grid and an elaborate electrical car infrastructure all sound attractive, but the most important question is whether there are enough material, energy and financial resources available to make those dreams ever come true.

Traditional windmills could be improved substantially with today’s knowledge and materials

Available data on the reserves of exotic resources required for many eco-technologies look grim, and some time ago it was heard that China (the main producer of important ecotech metals) plans to restrict the export of those metals. Windmills that convert kinetic energy directly to mechanical work could be operated without exotic materials.

High-tech traditional windmills

On a more positive note, traditional windmills could be improved substantially with today’s knowledge and fairly common materials. The gearings and sails could be made of steel or aluminum, which would seriously improve efficiency and also make windmills fireproof. Being made entirely or in large part of wood, many windmills were destroyed by fire. Of course, also the factory machinery inside the mill could be made much more efficient now.

Fig. 24

Windmills could be built much larger and thus more powerful. To give an indication; in 2005, the Dutch built another traditional windmill, that generates electricity - the "Noletmolen" in Schiedam. It stands almost 42 metres tall with sails 30 metres across, slightly less than the Murphy Mill in San Francisco. It was built for promotional purposes by a distillery (the town hosts 5 more historical mills built to produce Dutch gin). Although the mill is not really a "mill", it is built according to a traditional design, but using high-tech materials and sails (Fig. 24). The result is a power output of more than 200 horsepower at the windshaft. Take that, Energy Ball.

Fig. 25

Ecotech treatment

Backup power for a traditional windmill could be delivered by an electrical motor instead of horses (or we could just work when the wind blows). There is no doubt that now, 70 years later, an army of ecotech geeks could still seriously improve the Dutch experiments from the 1930s. The results might not look as romantic as a traditional windmill, but very useful.

Of course, this is not a plea to eliminate electricity-generating wind turbines or even the electricity infrastructure altogether. But, some things might be more efficiently done with direct conversion of kinetic energy to mechanical energy.

We will dive deeper into the history of renewable energy in forthcoming articles.

Kris De Decker (edited by Vincent Grosjean)

Sources (in order of importance)


Brilliant! I want to run outside an make one.
Good work

Agreed - utterly fascinating read. The SF anthology Wastelands : Stories of the Apocalypse includes "Waiting for the Zephyr," which features a sail powered landgoing vehicle - wonder if that was ever tried.

I should add, a large vehicle, not the small sail racers people tool around salt flats on.

Great article, reminds me of the not only the water-pumping windmills I still see relics of, but of the wind-powered sawmill my 80 yr old uncle recalls his uncle operating out in the US West. The US has been called the Saudi Arabia of wind, it only requires us recognizing that and acting on it.

If draft animals see a return in farming/transport, then their availability would help ameliorate any dead wind times.

Thanks Kris!
The Windmill Museum in Kendallville Indiana recently built a Dutch style windmill. It's beautiful, but I don't know if it is attached to anything like a grain grinder. Their museum has a huge number of the classic american water-pumping windmills all on towers and spinning.

Have you seen or heard much about Hydraulic Windmills? They use a hydraulic pump up in the body of the mill instead of a generator. I know that New Alchemy Institute experimented with one many years ago.

With a Hydraulic Windmill one could use the power directly in any rotating machinery without the need for combining the tower structure into the building housing the machinery.

Can hydraulic "power" be accumulated and stored for later use? Maybe in some sort of combined hydraulic/pnuematic tank like home wells use?

Might make the most sense to take wind directly (and Mechanically) to pumped Hydro for the storage medium, while of course extracting that energy also need not automatically go through electricity, if you can establish the applications near the reservoir, and just take the direct mechanical energy.

As convenience (electricity) often comes with a cost, then finding ways to live with percieved 'inconveniences' can likewise earn some benefits.

Ummm, by hydraulic I meant pressurized oil - like a hydraulic cylinder or motor uses.

Your reply sounds like you are thinking about water, but I may be reading it wrong...

Yes, you're right, I was changing fluids there. I suppose it would be conceivable to store Hydraulic pressure directly using numerous Rams that are holding up a load, etc.. but that leaves a lot of seals under constant pressure.. my thought was to use a source like stored Hydro, and release it to run a Hydraulic pump when the work is happening.

Of course there's the 'Raised weights' option may work in a smaller scale situation, or where hydro-reservoir isn't possible.. but hydraulics would chew up that potential pretty fast, I'd imagine..

No. I like Jokuhls original plan. It could be used at any hydroelectric plant. Just add some windmills that when the wind is available pump some of the water back upstream, and therefore the amount available for the hydroplant is increased. Today we here a lot of talk about doing this with electricity from the windmills, this just avoids the generator transmission line and motor. Of course these direct pump mills would have to be placed close to the dam, but perhaps they can deliver cheaper dispatchable power than more traditional methods.

I see the hydraulics, as more of a means to transmit mechanical forces than as a means to store energy.

Generally you are trying to catch the more consistent, stronger wind that is available at greater elevation. Converting it to electricity at the hub eleminates the need for long, heavy drive gear and frees the towers to be much taller. Even right at the hydro facility towers would need to be positioned as high as practical. Hard to see any advantage to direct wind powered mechanical pumps at a hydro facility that generates electricity. Wires are just a heck of a lot easier to run than long, complex drive gear. Even in your backyard well an electric submersible pump gets water a lot higher a than any mechanical system you can readily devise. Electric motors and generators can be made simple and easy to maintain.

I don't believe a couple of right-angle gears and a long drive-shaft is actually all that complicated. There are surely conveniences in Electrics, but also a great amount of materials requirements, particularly insulators and solid-state components which drive up the embedded energy in Electric systems.. I'm not against them, but we've gotten spoiled with our expectation of that convenience, while a simple, elegant bit of machine-work can be surprisingly durable and effective.

Alan's proposals about pumped storage between a couple of the Great Lakes strikes me as an ideal application for direct Wind-supported Hydro, with volumes so large that the direct impact might be quite minimal.. and you've got the Wind-Resource right near the Reservoirs, coming down the plains.

is there some way the aqueduct to Arizona can be worked into his plan, that has been talked about for even longer :-) If we are pumping that much great lake water around with 'minimal' effect (I've spent a lot of my life on their shores so I know the sort of 'minimal' effects small up and down fluctuations have on the shoreline) the tech available will be able to support efficient electric pumps. All mechanical linkages are relatively brittle in comparison. A mega project of that sort does not suggest any lack of high tech capability.

I don't really think taking hydraulic clues from a guy who lives in a city that is mostly below sea level might be the best course anyway :-) but big ideas are needed so who knows.

The pumped hydro at dams will require a lot of lift, hard to beat powerful electric pumps. Your are at an electric hydro generation station for god's sake, that implies electrical use on a larger scale, which of course implies no shortage of motors and generators.

In a later post I suggested a use for a mechanical linkage where hydraulics just look to be too messy, on a floating generator 'island' where gears track up and down the piers tethering the float. Tidal environments suit this best but they are messy. If you wanted to cover a large portion of the pumped hydro reservoir with floating generator pad/s you could greatly reduce evaporation. The costs and ERoEI of such a project are well past me, just a wild and crazy idea that really might not be in some locals.

I would rather do all sorts of stuff to the hydro power we already have before really trying to mess with the great lakes flow more than we have already.

The real draw of the mechanical linkages to wind power seems to be the implied return to that medieval 'paradise' so many here would like to see. That is more in the realm of religious beliefs, religion can trump efficiency and have no real counter argument that will make a lick of difference to the believer--that is how we are wired.

Hydraulic windmills were tried. Didn't work out, in the same way that the hydraulic logic computers that were tested in case the environment of space was hostile enough to prevent solid state chips working.

Problem 1 - how are you going to transmit the power? If you have long hydraulic hose from the nacell to the ground where you place the hydraulic to electric EQ - how do you adapt to the blades moving into the wind?

Long hydraulic lines, lots of friction loss not to mention all the mechanical issues in maintaining hydraulic integrity. I'm sure there is plenty of literature out their comparing the power transmission losses between different types of systems. Electrical resistance is of course not always a triffling consideration either. I'm sure someone around here could give us some real world numbers on power transmission efficiencies.

A 6000 MW (the power of 3000 wind-turbines), 800 kV single HVDC line loss (+ converter and S/S losses) @ full load are 6% per 1000 miles:

(Only a pipeline can compete - if you factor in the total energy in the oil transported).

Here is info and test results on the New Alchemy Institute hydraulic windmill discussed above.

In the same document is info on how to build a sail-wing windmill for pumping water. (A small do-it-yourself windmill with "blades" made of tensioned fabric, like a sail boat)

Amazing what you can find on the internet...

Fascinating article indeed. Does that make me an ecogeek?

I saw this on the Energy Bulletin.

If small to medium size local windmills make a comeback, as I believe they will eventually,building them will be much easier in a powered down , resuorce deprived economy will be a lot easier than one might think-unless we export all of our scrap to China!

There will be many thousands of heavy duty trucks sitting around and the drive line components are admirably suited to recycling into windmills.

The rear differential and axle assembly for instance is designed to carry ten ton loads at high speed over rough roads for a million miles while transmitting up to five hundred horsepower or even more to the rear wheelseven at first gear speeds-the torque loads are enormous but they seldom fail.It converts rotary motion at a right angle to boot!It already has a built in brake system ,and a steel wheel that bolts right onto it would make an admirable hub for the airfoils with some modification.

The drive shafts on such trucks can be coupled end to end easily to get power from the top of the tower to the ground level.

The gears and bearings in these truck components are very efficient-this is not an area that relates to repairs and maintainence directly so I could be wrong but I'm thinking that power losses are less than two percent in modern truck transmissions and another two percent in the rear differential gears.

My guess is that a windmill built fron such salvaged truck parts would last for generations-considering the light loadsand low operating speed- as long as the operator makes sure the lubricants don't leak out.

Furthermore the frame rails are already jioned in a ladder layout-the frames from four trucks would suffice for the tower of a square mill tower up to forty eight feet(the length of the longest truck trailers that are very common) high with two rails in each wall. Such a tower would be very easy to build in comparision to a masonry or wooden tower, and extending its hieght to eighty eight feet would not be that hard.

Getting any higher could be quite a job without a big crane but it could be done with sufficient man power and time.

oldfarmermac -

Your post is truly a coincidence!

I happened to have missed the series 'Jericho' when it was on TV several years ago, so I borrowed the DVDs of the first season from our public library. The series is about a small remote Kansas town trying to cope with the chaos resulting from several nuclear blasts wiping out about a dozen major cities (so far, it's unclear who did it, possibly an inside job).

In the episode I was watching last night, the townspeople were running out of fuel for their emergency generators, and they decided to try to build some wind turbines. They were scrounging for parts and trying to figure out a way to make moderate size wind turbines. After watching the show I sat down to try to figure out a way of making wind turbines literally out of junk.

Then the exact same idea dawned on me: why not take a truck rear end, situate its axis horizontally, attach a homemade blade to the steel wheel rim, and then transmit power vertically through the downward pointing drive shaft. If you want to get some additional increase in rotational speed, you could even leave the (manual) transmission attached, so that when it's in first gear (and with say a about a 3.00 axle ratio) you'd have something like an 11:1 overall speed ratio, which would be good for turning a generator or alternator. These could also be gotten from junk. You could rig up, via an arrangement of fan belts, several alternators in parallel, which would give a decent current, albeit only at 12 volts. If you want more voltage, you could perhaps scrounge a transformer from somewhere. Crude, at least you'd have some juice for vital functions, such as running a clinic.

The blades could either be welded up out of scrap sheet steel using a template to give the proper twist, or alternatively, they could be fashioned out of wood, just like the old airplane propellers.

I'm not sure how long such a homemade windmill would last, but it would be a fun project that would demonstrate what can be done in a pinch if one exercises some imagination and resourcefulness.

Got an old truck you'd like to donate?

How about some of those "clunkers"? Aren't SUV's officially trucks?

18-wheelers usually have 24 volt alternators. There are ways to convert auto alternators to produce higher voltages.
The problem with using the differential with a drive shaft hanging below it is that the lubricant will easily flow out of the end seals. Differentials are made with the idea that most of the oil will lay in a pool in the bottom of the case which allows for a lower resistance seal to be used. Seals which would prevent leakage would increase friction and lower efficiency.

Of course the main piece you need is simply a hefty load-bearing bearing for your rotor, maybe a second one for Yaw.. and so a great many of these ( ) have been built using merely a wheel bearing from a passenger car.. Volvos in this case.

I have read articles about taking an ordinary ac motor and a 200 mgd capacitor and a method to start a magnetic field, either fixed or coils, and turning that into a simple generator. Never tried it but seen it working.

Also. Alternators produce ac current at a higher voltage. The voltage in a car or truck is 12 volts dc but that is because of the voltage regulating system.

Sorry, don't know where you are in the world, but in the US, all 18 wheelers are 12 volt. Back in the 60's there were some "start on 24-run on 12" systems, but they went away pretty quickly after alot of battery blowup explosions when joe sixpack tried to jump start in cold weather. Good idea, bad to speak.

And while I'm at it, you need to put the torque to a rear drive unit thru the pinion gear (driveshaft end), in the correct direction, otherwise it will want to walk over the ring gear due to the way they are cut. They are built to go well over a million miles today, but designed to take torque in one direction for max wear. Arvin Meritor makes the vast majority of class 8 stuff in this country. Check out their site for more info than you will ever want.

If it gets to the point in this country that you, or anyone else is using truck parts for windmills, drivetrain lash will be the least of your worries....hahahahahahah.

nukendukem -

Well, you obviously know your truck axles and truck electrical systems!

I didn't think of the differential lube oozing out due to a vertical configuration, but I suspect that there is a way around it (even if it means having someone collecting the leaking lube and pouring it back it.) Hey, during hard times one does stuff like this. One does what one can to keep things running.

Still, I think you must admit that a horizontally placed truck axle has great potential for being the drive mechanism for a crude home-built wind turbine. (?)

One other nice thing is that if you leave the brake lines in place, along with the master cylinder and some semblance of a brake pedal, you could slow down or completely stop the blades from turning during periods of excessively high winds, thereby preventing the blades from self-destructing.

When I'm on this subject, I look to the Cubans for inspiration. Since the early 1960s then have managed to keep their vintage American cars up and running (more or less) through sheer will, ingenuity, and persistence.

The leaks can be easily(in relation to the overall job) dealt with without serious power losses.

Small windmills could probably be used to drive a bank of 24 volt alternators to good effect but larger ones will be used to drive much larger generators or to drive pumps or grinding mills or other machines that can be driven directly.


Not a big one.

I am very interested in windmills as a part of the overall energy picture but even though I live in the mountians the wind resource on our property is close to zero-we are in a sort of cup on a lower slope so I have never considered building one.

But if I am still able to get around when my family duties are over I may invite a few people to come visit who are interested in such things-I have a good shop and considerable mechanical expertise.

Or maybe I can load up my tools and hit the road and go someplace where people are building waterwheels and windmills and solar collectors.

You hit the nail on the head.Truck back axles are built to take up to 20,000 flbs torque and 500hp and never realy fail. Remember any 3 phase motor will also work as a generator when driven. The amount of perfectly good gearing bearings that get dumped is criminal. The materials will be avalible for a lot of years all that will be needed is forward thinking people Otherwise known as Bodgers to make use of all the scrap. The results may not look the best but it will work.

Even a single-phase induction motor can supply electric power when driven over synchronous speed.  This can be done without complex equipment.

Here is an account of building and running an induction generator.

Here is an induction-generator controller using a dump load to manage excess power.

The biggest issue with using a scheme like this to run a factory is going to be managing the load to match the power supply, or vice versa.  Having either a secondary load (or set of loads) which can be varied with the wind and changing power demand or a secondary generator (ditto) will be a huge help in a system like this.

The rear-axle trick has been around for a long time; it was referred to in "The Handbook of Homemade Power" in the 70's IIRC, which is a collection of stuff from "Mother Earth News" even earlier.  Leaking lube is an issue, and one suggestion is to point the drive shaft UP.  Putting a generator up on the tower is much simpler mechanically than running long shafts; there is a reason that the fractional-horsepower motor revolutionized industrial machinery.

Edit:  it might be feasible to use storage batteries as an energy buffer for an AC system.  I would not be surprised if common electronics, such as lamp dimmers, could be adapted into polyphase inverters to prop up the power of an AC system when generation sagged; simple rectifiers would suffice to dump excess power to the batteries when there was a surplus, although SCRs would also allow some control of power factor.

I was thinking on a small homestead scale farm a mobile windmill of a few hp with a PTO type shaft mounted on a wagon frame may be useful. When the winds blow you move it around to maybe a dragsaw, a grain mill or thresher, haybaler, wood shop or water pump.

My add-on to this has been the idea of over-building part of the tower to support a number of sliding weights on winch or chain assemblies, so that I can carry some stored energy that way. Put your shop tools in a shed right nearby (with a very sturdy roof!), and you engage your tools through the weights, not the windmill.

I devised a continuous-loop system that would allow the wind to be lifting weights independent of a user extracting energy from them descending. (On Paper, anyway)

Another variation, a bit more outrageous would be to tow a tracked vehicle up a hill with a similar winch/release system.. could be a couple spare funicular TrainCars on conveniently abandoned Tracks, or an old Ambulance, OilTruck or Schoolbus with wheelguides, ruts, etc.. Only do this if you KNOW you can make your kids listen to your explicit orders.

Wow, look at those prices climb! Are we going over a waterfall - and me with no barrel?

Something I've ciphered over is using the energy stored in hoisted weights to run a window fan at night. Haven't come up with anything I would consider practical though.

If you got several sturdy youngsters, a treadwheel crane may be useful for hoisting weights.

barret -- ages ago when I was doing field work in Mexico I saw such a contraption used to power a small fan. I can't recall much detail but it was essentially powered by some metal (lead?) plates. This Indian farmer would lift the plates (6 or 7?) one at a time and hang it on some kind of bracket arrangement. The weights dropped very slowly (maybe over a couple of hours). Had some sort of pulley arrangement such that a small vertical drop of the weight equated to a high rmp at the fan. This was in a dirt floor hut with no electricity. They let us sit inside to avoid a very rare rain shower. I'm sure one of mechanical types at TOD can offer a design.

Multiply the mass in kg by ten by the number of meters you lift it, then divide by 3600 to get the number of watt-hours you get. If you are running a fan, the device can be made self-regulating by sizing your pulley and fan blades to match your weight or using a block and tackle, although that would hurt efficiency. Note that lifting 1000 kg 10 meters only yields 27 watt hours of storage, and in practice more like 20 watt hours because of inefficiencies in the equipment needed to do that.

Although the round trip efficiency of lifting a mass even with basic equipment is probably the highest round trip efficiency possible with only low-tech parts, a more practical application would be pumped storage using a windmill to pump water uphill. That has a low round trip efficiency but has much better storage potential (assuming you have a hill and a pool to store water in) than lifting a mass on pulleys.

I am not saying it can't be done, but energy storage schemes involving lifting weights other than water (and that assumes you have a suitable pump and a suitable waterwheel or turbine) are limited to small applications like small fan. To use a favorite phrase on this site: Can it scale? Not without late 19th-early 20th century technology.

The KE stored by pumping water uphill is the same as you get from solid weights and requires an appropriate reservoir. Additionally there are leakage and evaporation losses from pumped hydro.

With the right gearing you could do a staged weight setup which could be built in locations without appropriate reservoirs for pumped hydro. This sort of system can use the heaviest weights the local tech can deal with, and scaling is done by simply adding another weight to the chain. The tricky part is setting up a coupling+brake system that only allows one weight to be engaged with the system at a time.

I suspect that an appropriate design exists for use in mechanical-gravity drive clocks, the tricky part is scaling it to a useful power capacity for light industrial applications.

as added trick I have often wondered about having a large floating 'island' mounted on hydraulically plumbed pilings. The hydraulic flow would power generator/s on the 'island' as it went up and down when the water level changed. I more envisioned this as tidal thing. I just see so many issues in the seal system on the piling plumbing. But if you are talking big offshore islands, that could support wind farms and desalinization plants (some ERoEI issues there)... Actually what I first envisioned was some way to capture the tidal energy that moves boat docks up and down, but it is such a messy environment. Now that I think about it a mechanical drive with a gear turning as it tracked up and down the pilings might be something that could be worked out. Space on a already crowded dock would be an issue but more flotation allows more resistance to be overcome thus a bigger generator to run.

Consider the 'Island' being a retired SuperTanker or Three..

Then, you can use various energy forms, Solar, Wind, Wave and Tide, and even the rocking of the boat as dispersed sources with which to pump water OUT of the Tanks, while Turbines are running with INrushing water. The mass of the boat VS bouancy is the actual storage medium.

The supertankers will be corroded and sinking within 20 years.

The marine environment is much less forgiving than many who have not spent time around it imagine, that is for sure. Any idea how much energy could be harnessed by floating docks (supply and a range of masses that seems reasonable to you) that have an average up and down movement of ten feet per tide? Lots small of ports and habors with that much tide in some regions.

Maybe 20 years would still be a profitable stretch to Run that Hull into the ground.. if the fittings needed on the ship itself weren't too involved.. There are a lot of them out there.

Gotta love the engineers who just say why things won't work.

This kind of ideas tend to give me a headache.

I can see the big island idea causing headaches, the covered hydro reservoir maybe, but trying to get some juice out of floating docks where the tide manages at least a ten feet up and down average does not seem that far fetched to me. The pilings are there, the tides are more or less constant (within a range), the mass and flotation can be adjusted and the power is needed at the port--often smaller ones are not all that handy to the grid. Again marine environments are hostile, so this isn't something that could be plopped on a dock and expected to work, but we build a lot of floating docks around the world all the time, the idea seems at least worth invesitgating.

Oops didn't follow the thread right, you weren't replying to me.

Instead of lifting a fixed weight some places pump water up into a resevoir for storage. Then let is flow back down, through the pump and convert the energy back into a usable state.

.....but the most important question is whether there are enough material, energy and financial resources available to make those dreams ever come true

Yes, that is a very valid question. We need [fossil] energy to build up alternative energy systems. But we are now gobbling up the last easy oil for convenience purposes.

Still, we'll have little choice. The global warming awareness in Australia seems to be higher than in the US. We just had these articles on sea level rises:

High tide for housing

Make evacuation plans

Go on my web site and use the external links on sea level rises. At the same time you can read about my reminder on OPEC's overstated oil reserves. My worst case scenario is that by the time the world has really understood what global warming means and goes massively into renewable energy projects, everything will get stuck in diesel shortages. I already talked 3 times with the Australian Climate Change Minister Penny Wong about it, but our politicians just don't get it. Possibly never did Physics 1A at Uni to appreciate what energy is.

... financial resources....

Would the mass-production of wind-farms (not cars) be the only good and justifiable reason to print money?

"Yes, that is a very valid question. We need [fossil] energy to build up alternative energy systems. But we are now gobbling up the last easy oil for convenience purposes."

Most of the European wind and water mills described in the article were designed and build before industrialization therefore fossil fuels will not be nessesary for future construction. As long as we have raw materials and competent builders they can be rebuilt.

Agreed-Actually building them now will be a lot easier-except perhaps for some lost skills.There will be a lot of new modern materials that can be incorporated even in a mostly collapsed economy.

Some of these materials will be as commonplace as standardized nuts and bolts,dimensioned lumber, and better cement.

And it will be a long long time before fuel is so scarce that an excavator can't be used to dig the foundations , etc.There will be lots of heavy machines in running order too if bau collapses-a bulldozer kept in a shed will run just fine after being properly stored for many years-you might have to repair a few leaks is about the only real problem.Maybe put the acid back in the batteries and recharge them.

Really High value jobs will be done with machinery-at least the ones that can't be done by hand- for four or five decades at least after tshtf unless a war wipes out the oil industry beyond the point of getting it restarted.

You have no idea about the magnitude of the job to replace all of our coal fired power plants, our much higher population, the standard of living to be defended and the fights about dwindling oil supplies.

You have no idea about the magnitude of the job to replace all of our coal fired power plants,

Actually with the $180 billion spent on AIG to save Wallstreets bonuses, one could have financed 600 Oerlikon highly automated thinfilm photovoltaic factories, which produce 96 GW per year. So in only 4 years these photovoltaic factories have produced more capacity than all the coal power capacity in the US combined.

By the way, the photovoltaic factories in Germany pay more taxes than what they indirectly receive in feed-in tariffs - not to mention that they reduced the German unemployment rate (granted that unemployed people are not quite as costly as banksters but they DO cost).

Unfortunately, building thin-film PV plants requires real physical assets such as sophisticated equipment.  Bailing out the banksters just needed some numbers in a computer (which is all that fiat currencies are these days).

Unfortunately, building thin-film PV plants requires real physical assets such as sophisticated equipment.

Fortunately, these companies accept cash.
Unfortunately, these companies had to lay off many thousands of people willing to produce that sophisticated equipment but weren't as fortunate as the bankers.
Actually they wouldn't have to lay off all these people if they just had access to cheap credit from the national bank as the banks did, but unfortunately they did not and suffered from the fact that the banks increased the interest rates of the credits they were given before the recession hit, because their stock price dropped and subsequently were forced to come up with drastic measures to please the banks.

After disastrous results for the first half of 2009, Swiss technology group Oerlikon said it would lay off 2,500 employees and unlike Swiss banks who gave big bonuses to executives who almost put them in ruin, its top executive is going to be among the victims.


The company, which netted a first-half loss of 99 million francs (65.3 million Euro) already cut 1,500 positions in the first half of the year.

And unfortunately the unemployed also have to be paid for by us and not the bankers.

But what would we do without world-economy harming derivative-bankers?
After all, they developed democracy and the rule of law.
After all, they developed medicine and health care.
After all, they developed modern agriculture.
After all, they created all the literature, music and film.
After all, they developed clean water distribution.
After all, they developed any means for transportation including ships, trains, cars, aircraft's, bridges and tunnels.
After all, they developed electricity and artificial lighting.
After all, they developed the telephone, radio, TV, computer, satellites and the internet.
After all, they developed efficiency and renewable energy.
After all, they freed the world from the Nazis and got rid off all evil-doers singlehandedly.
And of course, it was the derivate-bankers who were the first on the moon.
And that's why they deserve record bonuses even when they generate record losses.

We agree on this. Before the first bailout I wrote Bush and my Congressmen that I would not vote for anybody who voted for the bailout. If everybody sent such a note we would be better off.

Of course I probably would not have voted for them anyhow, so it was a bit of an empty threat.

Matt ,I don't expect enough small to medium windmills to be built to replace more than a small fraction of our current energy use-probably such mills will not approach five or ten percent of our cureent electricity output even after several decades-but otoh, every kwh that comes out of them will most likely be put to a very high value use-I don't think any juice will be wasted on big flashy signs at convenience stores or lighting up empty buildings for a couple of janitors.

But I do believe that it is still possible - but not at all LIKELY- for us to make the transition to renewables and nukes.

All that is lacking is the committment.It would be very hard- but not nearly as hard as facing the consequences of failing to do it.

We are not supposed to be able to afford a hundred billion for a hvdc grid?Bullshit!That is about four hundred dollars per person -one time!We could afford that easily out of our fast food habit or our beer habit or our cosmetics and flashy clothes habit.

And I don't think it would take very long to recover our money as a result of the savings in buyimg coal to burn for juice-coal is getting expensive too.

It's not just the AVIODED coal PURCHASE money we would save-a major reduction in the use of coal would depress the price of coal across the board. There is no need to even consider the envoronmental savings -except as a bonus.

It will happen if we get a Pearl Harbor scale wake up call and we are lucky enough to avoid WWIII.

We spent somewhere in the nieghborhood of five billion dollars to supply coal to our electric utilities last year-not to mention all the stranded environmental costs associated with mining and burning it.

My personal wag is that we could save at least two billion a year in direct expenses by getting a robust wind system in place nationally.If that could be financed and leveraged at five percent we would have enough money to put in a serviceable super grid-or at least the skeleton of one.

Of course given the political realities we must first experience some sort of knocked on our butts mugging by an energy crisis before we will act-at that point operating under emergency decrees the problems involved in routing the lines and other political considerations will be solved in a hurry.

Incidentally the major coal players seem to believe that coal prices are going to go up quite a bit over the next few years.

Would the mass-production of wind-farms (not cars) be the only good and justifiable reason to print money?

It would be, but unfortunately the wind turbine production rate in the US has gone down by 38% while money is being printed to increase Wall Streets bonuses. (Ironically more wind turbines were added during the Bush administration than during the Obama administration which is supposedly all about renewable energy and job creation.)

AWEA reported that wind turbine manufacturing still lags below 2008 levels, in both production and new announcements.

AWEA does not expect the fourth quarter of 2009 to be as strong as the fourth quarter of 2008 since the 5,000 MW now under construction is nearly 38% lower than the over 8,000 MW under construction at this time last year.

Bankers bonuses are more important than sustainable jobs and energy independence.

Total compensation and benefits at the publicly traded firms analyzed by the Journal are on track to increase 20% from last year's $117 billion -- and to top 2007's $130 billion payout.

Politicians (in particular) don't [i]want[/i] to fix 'the problem'. By fixing it, they remove the need for their job description.
Maybe I'm just being cynical today...

This is a really great article. It does TOD proud.
What I find fascinating is the link between energy and economic output in a society.
In this case technical mastery "know how" combined with geographical serendipity (good wind and water conditions) leads to economic prosperity - in the Netherlands.

There is a new book out that looks at the Industrial Revolution in England - why did it blossom in England when many other countries had the necessary preconditions - financial system, legal system, technical expertise, good labor force etc. and the suggestion is - England had abundant and cheap coal. More so than any other country in 1800. England was a significant energy exporter.
And England dominated the 19th century economically.

The analogy I make is to the US in 1900. The US had abundant and cheap oil. The US was a significant oil exporter in 1900, and had a good run for the next 100 years.

So where does that leave us in 2010?

The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (New Approaches to Economic and Social History) (Hardcover)2009 Robert C Allen

Kris told me he is a regular Oil Drum reader. Hopefully, he will be able to make some comments today.

The analogy I make is to the US in 1900. The US had abundant and cheap oil. The US was a significant oil exporter in 1900, and had a good run for the next 100 years.

So where does that leave us in 2010?

Oil has a few more years, as does coal. Wind and Geothermal and Biomass and Solar will all play a part.

I think that France with nuclear power plants and electric rail and trolleys might be the better place to survive the next few years.

I think that France with nuclear power plants and electric rail and trolleys might be the better place to survive the next few years.

Actually, almost 90% of the French energy consumption is not provided by nuclear power according to the International Atomic Energy Agency:

French energy consumption: 54'785.84 kWh/capita

French electricity consumption: 7'366.00 kWh/capita

French nuclear electricity consumption: 5745 kWh/capita (78% nuclear power):

The first number is gross thermal energy, so you should compare with thermal reactor power, a factor of three higher, so 30% nuclear overall.

More importantly, most fossil applications can be converted to electric power and factory mass produced nuclear plants can be built as needed.

Besides that oil, coal and gas heaters and hot water boilers have close to 100% and not just 30% efficiency.

And besides that uranium powered heaters, air-crafts, commercial ships, trucks and cars are not commercially available, that's irrelevant.

Fact is that France still depends heavily on foreign oil and foreign gas even if you ignore the fact that their uranium also needs to be imported.

The American manufacturing experience — which used more waterpower more than coal until 1870 — suggests that the Industrial Revolution was actually finance-led. The social preceded the geological or technical. I don't deny that energy plays a big role in development, but it's not the only lever, even if it is the one I'm most interested in.

The U.S. was so anomalous in so many respects after the Civil War, that it's hard to chalk it all up to the presence of abundant oil. We were bigger — amount of land, number of people, size of corporations — than any single European country, but we inherited their economic institutions and goals.

Scale is what makes China scary for Americans, regardless of their energy resources/desires.

Thanks for that excellent in depth paper. I was aware that Dutch engineers had drained the lowlands and areas of England (Fens and Isle of Dogs) using windmills but had no idea of the full scope of other uses they had.

I'm looking fowards to the forthcomming articles.

Thanks for the intersting history of the windmills, they are impressive engineering structures.

I am a little skeptical of your final conclusions though. I would be surprised if it were ever more efficient to build a large windmill rather than a small modern wind turbine with a generator and wire going to an induction motor to drive your factory machinery. Especially if as suggested at the end a backup electrical motor is required anyway. The thick tower you need to transmit the kinetic energy introduces shadowing, drag and probably turbulance into the equation and the many mechanical linkages will have losses which will reduce efficiency.

having the wind turbine produce electricity also allows us the flexibility to move our factory equipment around as we feel like it, as we just need a longer wire. The mechanical linkages will also require maintenance and eventually replacement, this will always be the case but if the machinery is housed elsewhere it's easier to get at and maintain. It would also be easier to decouple the link between the turbine and the equipment for maintenance (i.e. just unplug the motor), and you can still sell excess electricity produced to the grid while the machinery's out of action.

Brilliant article, and a welcome alternative to only high tech answers.
While a modern turbine may be more efficient, direct mechanical power like this could be reproduced with much much less embodied energy, exotic materials and little if any fossil fuels.
I think that's the main selling point here, is high tech eco technology really a sustainable option if it's continuing to rely on high energy extraction of materials from around the world?
I think there's room for both, having lived in Holland, i can say these are really beautiful machines - though a lot of them are just houses now..

I think that converting the wind's KE directly into useful work is not really worth it; you would get higher efficiencies in most cases using a motor/generator pair.

Which cases would you say would be most promising for this kind of direct use of the KE? I would have thought that the loss of energy in each conversion (KE > EE > KE) would reduce the efficiency considerably. But this is not my area of expertise by a long shot.

Sometimes (and in the times to come, I fear).. there are MANY other considerations besides simply efficiency. Availability of motor/generator materials comes to mind, and also the use of wind in simple systems like water-pumping which are likely cheaper to make and possibly less-prone to being scrapped for precious parts.

It's not an Either/Or proposition anyway, just reminding us that there are many ways to apply the power in the wind. It's easy to get Homogenized into expecting electricity out of the deal. Windpower for direct ventilation, for simple mechanical processes can make a very handy backup, and would in all likelihood be working in ADDITION to Electric Wind Turbines.

The best uses for the KE straight from the wind would be grinding grain or operating machine tools. Although you won't get a CNC machine working after TSHTF, a smaller one that uses screws (not the chain drive or rack and pinion type) could be converted to a manual mill just by taking off the stepper motors and attaching cranks to them, assuming you can run the spindle via a PTO. Tool wear would be the biggest issue, but if you have good tools and primarily use them to mill wood, a lathe or a mill could turn out some very nice wooden components for things and the tools will not wear that fast.

Electric motors are very reliable, they will be around for a long time after TSHTF and they can be recycled into new electric motors with some care and the ability to re-insulate the wires. Efficiency and performance will not be as high as a factory-wound motor, but it can be done. Unless every single book on the subject is burnt for warmth and every electrical engineer (or in developing countries, motor repair person) dies. They do this (completely strip down and rebuild) old electrical motors in most of the world already, BTW. It's a cottage industry, although I imagine they have slaves doing it in China in a factory somewhere.

Jokuhl has it right though, it would be foolish to expect only KE from the wind or only electricity from the wind.

Actually most wind turbine's today use a DFIG, a fancy form of induction machine (although this probably won't be allowed for much longer for grid reliability reasons). We've had these for about 100 years now and they do not require anything much fancier than iron and copper wire. It is a myth that rare-earth PM synchronous generators are in wide use yet in wind turbines.

The advantages of electricity over direct mechanical power were so overwhelming that factories were some of the first users of electric motors. The labor savings and efficiency of converting to electricity were enormous, sometimes causing a ten fold increase in output per worker hour. A good example is the Ball glass plant described in "Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology"

Factory electrification took place mostly between 1900 and 1920.

Electricity can be efficiently generated without rare earth elements used in magnets of generators, and I cannot think of any limiting factors to wind power (other than intermittency) except the availability of good locations. Also, the rare earth element industry suffers from lack of capital investment rather than a shortage of ores. One US REE mine is in the process of reopening and another deposit remains undeveloped.

Electromagnets were used in generators and motors before high tech permanent magnets. Many if not most generators still use electromagnets and almost all motors use them also. Permanent magnet motors are more efficient in certain applications, like small motors. I assume permanent magnet motors are smaller and lightweight compared to elcetromagnets motors.

Mediocre productivity may be better than outstanding productivity.

Hang on there having lived in a Woolen Mill that was water powered and toured the mill museums.

The biggest problem was the belts they only had leather back then and you had a lot of losses in the belt drives.
Plus the belts themselves where very dangerous with numerous accidents. Not that I think they cared much for the worker at the time but having your best friend git his/her arm ripped off tends to cause problems with productivity.

Also of course location location location. With water power there are only a few viable sites for factories electricity of course meant the factory could be placed anywhere. In New England at least the best sites for hydro power had been developed for a long time even as technology improved so these where not towns which meant expensive land if you expanded.

Electricity from the grid solved these problems.

Now as far as electricity vs mechanical power drives I'd argue thats debatable each has its strengths and weaknesses.
And of course my favorite air motors where not really used until after electricity was well entrenched so they never really got a chance to compete on a level playing field. Although air power is widespread in factories.
For the most part air motors are actually smaller and more robust than electrical motors. And modern toothed belts that don't have the play of old leather belts can be enclosed in safety covers.

The one disadvantage that cannot be overcome readily is of course location your going to have certain places suitable for the mechanical solutions. However if your talking about a society that has moved to limit its need for manufactured parts then the demand could easily be low enough to be met with existing locations amendable to mechanical solutions. When not if our population decreases the location issue will become less and less of a problem.

Having worked with both machanical and electrical drives I can tell you that electrical has overwhelming advantages over mechanical, a few being:

Push button start and stop
Simpler variable speed control
Factory layout independent of lineshaft location
Low maintenance

Imagine trying to operate a drill press from a belt. Small electrical motors offered superior precision drilling. And you could easily relocate the drill press. Same with lathes, milling machines and other machine tools.

Speed control is extremely complicated with line shafts, especially for a process where you may want to vary the speeds of machines independently.

With development of silicon current rectifiers it became inexpensive and efficient to convert AC to DC. With inverters DC can be changed to precicely controlled frequency, which determines the speed of AC induction motors, allowing for precice speed control.

If you only want to do one operation, like grinding grain, then direct mechanical power can be used, but we couldn't have modern factories without electricity.

*clap* *clap*

I am no engineer. However, I once worked for a few months in a sheet metal factory that ran most of its machines on compressed air. They did this because they could generate more sustained pressure to cut or press sheet metal.

For compressed air, substitute mechanical energy from wind or water. If it has applications even today, I don't see why it couldn't have applications in the future if fossil fuels or chemicals for batteries are unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

It may be second best, but as someone who yesterday sloppily used his decade-old first aid training to stop a man in the street from dying, I can say that second best is pretty damned good when the alternative is nothing at all.

Where did they get the compressed air from? I'd be willing to bet it was made with a pump using an induction motor.

Unless it is a religious thing I don't see much reason for getting away from the generator/motor link either. It is just so much easier to run wires than drive gear and that frees your sails to get a lot farther from the ground. Some of the mechanical linkage back in the day was godawful complex and it could chew up a lot of power.

Diesel locomotives and even big commercial ships often use no mechanical linkage between motor and wheels/propeller (and use an electric generator/motor set in between), even though the distance between motor and wheels/propellor is definitely a non-issue.

even the short distances on boats and locomotives require very accurate allignment and balancing of the drive gear, an issue that gets trickier as the machinery get larger and the rpms increase.

Actually it has mostly to do with gearing.

The most powerful diesel ship engines still have a direct mechanical link between engine and propeller, but there's no gearbox:

As the engines get more powerful the torque goes up, which is challenge for gearwheels and an electric motor can operate effectively over a wide speed range and thus works without a gearbox.

102 rpm says a lot. The operating range is 92-102 rpm. No doubt balance and alignment are still big issues but the low speed makes them doable.

The Emma Maersk is the biggest boat with one of these beasts installed. It manages 25.5 knots. I'm guessing that the speed at the lower end of the operating range won't be all that slow. The five additional cat diesels that manage 40000 hp must handle everything else as the direct drive wouldn't seem to allow a reverse. I don't see them reversing that beast like a rotax on a skiddo.

I have no idea what a rotax is but a diesel can run in either direction depending on how you start it.

Rotax is just that it reverses the two stroke gas engine's direction. So a large diesel like this could be stopped and reversed. It used to be done on small diesel boat engines. It just seems there is so much here to stop and restart that it would be a massive (2300 tons including the 300 ton crank) undertaking. One would think something this large that operated in such a narrow rpm range would be built to have rotation direction bias. But that is conjecture on my part, I tried to find if it was reversible but found no mention of it.

The 2-stroke-diesel in the picture is reversible.

In this book is a generalized reference,
it says:

thanks anyone, as it is a two stroke I did wonder about that. Once I searched 'two stroke' lots of relevant info came up. As the rpm range is small (92-102) and from what I could gather variable pitch props are not made as big as needed here, it would seem reversing the engine would only be used as the main brake on forward momentum. Low speed operations on the Emma Maersk would be handled by the CAT engines running thrusters (here I am assuming again). 25 knots times 90% is still over 20 knots. I just don't see them starting and stopping and reversing that beast repeatedly in short time frames, but that could be possible. I would be interesting to see the compressed air hookup.

By the way how tricky is it to post pictures here?

At least the power range of this engine is much larger.

And that's how you post pictures:

The technical specs don't mention performance at speeds below 92 RPM, but I suspect that it can be operated there.  The engine is started with air, and its direction can be switched by changing the valve and fuel injection timing.  Stopping and reversing a piston steam engine is a piece of cake (I've watched it being done on the SS Badger), and I doubt that the Wartsila-Sulzer engines are much more difficult.

I guess the beast has a slow speed :-)

By the way how tricky is it to post pictures here?

Standard HTML:


Images can be pretty much any type, such as jpg, gif, png etc, but bmp is highly discouraged pretty much everywhere on the web.

If you want text to link to an image:

<A HREF="">text goes here</A>

And if you want an image to link to something:

<a href=""><img src=""></a>

Crobar,I have worded in lots of places that used compressed air-and every single one used electric motors to drive the compressors.

I can't really see any reason why a compressor can't be effectively powered by a water wheel or turbine but it's hard to see the a system of air motors and pipes and hoses working better tan wires and electric motors in most applications.

I'm not qualified to say but my impression is that the energy efficiency of air motors is very poor compared to electrics.But they are undoubtedly cheap and durable and powerful in relation to thier size and wieght-which is nearly every garage has a 5 hp or larger electric air compressor used to drive one or two horsepower air tools.An electric motor is too heavy and bulky for a mechanic to lift it all day and won't fit into the tight places on cars and machinery nearly as well.

I'm not qualified to say but my impression is that the energy efficiency of air motors is very poor compared to electrics.

Yes, it is very very poor by a factor of ~ 10 (electricity - mechanical energy compared to electricity - compressed air - mechanical energy)

"but as someone who yesterday sloppily used his decade-old first aid training to stop a man in the street from dying,"

That's great that you did this!!!

Good job on keeping us in Overshoot! ;p :D

Yes, great article. It always struck me that, to the extent that we use electricity for mechanical operations, we are loosing a lot of energy by converting kinetic energy to electricity then back into kinetic energy.

How much could this energy be saved or transported by winding large, high resistance springs? Could these themselves for running cars or trucks?

Keep in mind, though, that average wind speed has been decreasing and is likely to do so as the differential between high and low latitude temperatures continues to drop.

Gristmills and water-powered millworks were once common in the US.

I live within a mile of the site of the water-powered mills that made Minneapolis the top producer of flour in the world for fifty years (about 1880-1930).

Another thing to keep in mind, though, is how much further we have grown in population and in per capita consumption since we depended on these sources. They can surely play a roll, but the most important things we have to do is to vastly reduce our energy use and our rabit-like breeding habits.

(Which launches me into my off-topic screed: Given a world with 6.8 billion people in it and about 350,000 new kids a day, it is pretty clear that the only truly perverse sex is that between a male and a female of childbearing age.)

"...the only truly perverse sex is that between a male and a female of childbearing age."

Amen, amen. [if not using contraceptives, I would add. Nothing wrong with it if they're using contraceptives.]

Quite so, quite so.
I would, however, point out a not insignificant fact: the poorer you are, the less you use of earths resources. One plonker burning 300 litres of gas per hour to shoot his yacht accross the ocean at 70 kph, leaves a bigger trail than 200 kids scavenging a rubbish tip in Egypt.
For now, the real problem is consumption.
We still produce more or less enough food for the worlds population, but more than a billion don't get enough.

Consumption will deplete the world's carrying capacity before population can flatten it.

The problem is not (yet) the number of the poor, but the greed of the rich.

Curbing that greed would significantly better our chances at surviving the hard times to come.

But as I know humanity, the greedy will accuse the needy of somehow being the cause of the problem, and then they'll find some excuse to justify a bit of culling. And the needy will not forever take the bleeding peacefully.

Oh it will be a wonderful time. People will join and unite in groups and classes and tribes and then fight each other gleefully. It will be so exciting!

" One plonker burning 300 litres of gas per hour to shoot his yacht accross the ocean at 70 kph, leaves a bigger trail than 200 kids scavenging a rubbish tip in Egypt. "

Not if the 200 kids become 800 kids in the next generation.

I wonder how you don't see how twisted this argument becomes.

Kids on rubbish tips don't have the right to reproduce, because I have the right to consume as much as I can.

The real problem of overpopulation lies with those that consume more than their due.

The overpopulation is the one who eats for twenty, not the twenty who get half-rations.

Moreover, people on half rations try to limit births. If you can't feed your kids, would you have a few so you can watch them die? During famines, fertility rates tend to drop vertiginously, while infant mortality rates jump through the roof.

One Dentist with her Lawyer husband have a couple of kids, a nice house, a few cars, vacations etc. All perfectly normal, except that by the 4 of them, they consume easily as much as whole villages in most of the world.

That is where the problem lies. We cannot accept that our 'just enough' is actually 'exceedingly greedy'. Overconsumption accelerates the effects of overpopulation to a degree corresponding to the degree of overconsumption. So in a world that still produces enough food to feed everyone, one billion go hungry, two or three billion just get by, and we in the richest billion can overeat every day and still throw tons of food away.

It is perverse to blame the poor for overpopulation.
If the top billion consume 20 times as much as the bottom billion, the top billion adds a charge of 20 billion to a planet of 6 and a half billion people.
Even at a ratio of only 10 to 1, the richest billion people weigh nearly double as much as the rest.

I'm sorry for highjacking a beautiful thread, but some points do need to be made.

of course, don't worry no one highjacked this one

on a similar tangent for someone living at the high end of the food chain to spend too much time bemoaning the inequity of things could be considered a 'criminal' waste of the raised platform on which they had been lucky and privileged enough to live--balance is always a tricky proposition

Intriguing reply.

I did get a lot of the advantages of 'the raised platform'. During most of my life, I was barely aware of how blessed I am.
A brush with poverty was a real eye-opener for me. Finding work in an area where I can see a significant part of humanity pass in front of my eyes - I work on trains - only hammers the lesson home. And reading history fills in the story.
If you have to choose sides, choose the small guy, 'cause the big one usually is a bastard. A thief, a pirate, a con-man and a pilferer.

And yes, I know that this way of thinking should not endear me to the powers that be. People who voiced similar opinions have often been branded 'criminals'.

There is no balance here. The facts draw a pretty clear picture. At a time, when the earths resources show clear signs of depleting, thousands of millions of people are gorgeing themselves more than Alexander the Great ever did during his famous drink-fests.
You can choose to join, or to condemn, or to remain indifferent. But there is no balanced position on this.

No real argument with you on any of your points, except I was referring to personal balance. If one is lucky enough to live high on the food chain (and most OECD citizens live high on it) they best truly enjoy some of those benefits, because they have been dearly paid for by someone. Really living hand to mouth for a good spell is the only way I know to become aware of that fact. If knowing how the benefits are bought makes life on the platform totally untenable and is ripping someone apart they best get off. I really don't want to spend 100 hours a week just barely grubbing (I exaggerate--I never actually ate grubs) out a living again, so I try and maintain my balance on the platform. That can be tricky but I relish the challenge.

" The real problem of overpopulation lies with those that consume more than their due. "

Lukitas, what is each persons “due”?

The way to tell if a lifestyle is sustainable is to imagine a world in which all people live that lifestyle in all successive generations, and see what the outcome is.

Compare families of low, middle or high incomes that limit themselves to 0, 1 or two children with families of low, middle or high incomes that have 3, 4, 5 or more children.

Which of these six lifestyles is sustainable in perpetuity and which are not. The Easter islanders did not need high technology and a luxury lifestyle to destroy their environment.

What is each person's due?

Good question.

If you look at it from a moral perspective, the answer is relatively simple.
If everyone alive has an equal right to enjoying the earth, it follows that each is entitled to an equal amount of the earth's resources.

For me this is an ethical point.
It is self-evident, that anyone trying to promote this point of view will be branded utopian, communist and worse. But this is about morals, not politics. Once you accept that everyone has equal rights, it follows that everyone should have equal access to stuff. And it follows that those who have more than their share are acting unethically.

In the interest of ethics you equalize land and other assets between two villages, the Investors and the Spendthrifts.

The Investors plant trees and husband their fuel resources with things like solar cookers and gobar gas plants.  They limit their numbers to what their land can support, and they buy more as others sell it.  After 2 generations they're doing quite well.

The Spendthrifts have regular rituals involving big outdoor ox roasts and bonfires.  They grill everything with charcoal and heat their leaky houses with firewood.  They have children haphazardly, so they must build more houses (requiring even more wood) to house them; despite this, they get ever-more crowded.  Because their consumption exceeds their production they have to buy wood from others, including the Investors.  They pay for this wood with land.  Despite lots of labor, the lack of land means low food production per capita and they start going hungry.

After two generations, the Spendthrifts say, "look at those Investors.  They have so much more and live much better than we do.  This is not ethical!"  Are they right, or wrong?

Who are these virtuous Investors and lay-about Spendthrifts?

Where do they live?

The fable of the ant and the grasshopper is one of Lafontaine's more interesting morals. But it doesn't fit the picture.

Real investors are not virtuous, but rapacious ogres, who manage to suck money out of car accidents. A car crash does a lot for GDP you see: there's the tow truck and the repairs and the hospital costs and the flowers and the get well cards - a car crash makes a lot of money go around. When the Yes Men declared on the BBC that Dow was putting aside 12 billion for reparations in Bhopal, the Investors ran away, putting a 2 billion dent in Dow's stock value.

And if you are looking for Spendthrifts, look no further: the biggest investors are the biggest spendthrifts: Cars and yachts and jewels and art and clothes and cosmetic surgery and on and on and on.

When I look around me, I see lots of hard-working poor people, and a few rich guys who live it up. Spendthrifts rule the roost, and the rest of us cough up the wherewithal.

On a different note, given that you could judge a society on it's faults, do you visit the sins of the fathers upon the sons? Can children be held accountable for the crimes of their parents?

The investors we want are those who makes it possible to provide services we like to have.

Money for a new railway and new trains to not need to travel by car.

Production of a safer car.

A loan to make it possible to get the car withouth saving for ten years while driving an unsafe and ineffeicient clunker.

If we crash a hospital and trained staff to make us well again.

If we dont get well an even more advanced hospital that can harvest organs and make other people well.

A truck for the tow truck driver.

A recycling facility for cars

An orchard and a printer for Get well or welcome to the funeral cards.

And so on.

All of it requires investments, some from savings and some loans and manny of them are a combination. A Get well card printer is a small investment, a railway or a new car model and its manufacturing equipment are very large investments.

We need trust to collect money for all these investments. But most people who handle a lot of money want to be rich themsleves and live a high consumtion life or a use money to get prestige. Some will earn this by doing a good job, others will swindle and destroy trust.

The GDP measurement has little to do with this. It is intended to count everything that people do for other people that is valued in money. Wish fulfillment after a car crach to eiter get well or get a good funeral is positive value, it would be worse if the driver were left in a ditch to die and decompose. But having no car crash is even more positive for the overall economy.

And yes, the swindlers who cheat investors and destroy trust should burn in hell. And some of those swindlers are of course also investors.

Lukitas, I noticed that you did not answer my question;

" Which of these six lifestyles is sustainable in perpetuity and which are not? "

or EP’s question;

" After two generations, the Spendthrifts say, "look at those Investors. They have so much more and live much better than we do. This is not ethical!" Are they right, or wrong? "

If your philosophy is valid and well thought out you should have no problem providing a logical and full answer to these questions.

Regarding your question;

" Can children be held accountable for the crimes of their parents? "

No. We do not punish children if their parents are drunk driving, we punish the drivers by taking away their car and drivers license and adding fines and possible jail time.

Unfortunately our civilization rewards certain unsustainable lifestyles with tax deductions, free education, food stamps, subsidized housing, free health care etc.

This is unsustainable, it is part of the reason that civilizations go through a rise and fall cycle.

Driving a car is an expensive privilege and requires people to pass a written and performance test. If we treated our children as well as we treat our cars we and the children would be much better off.

Lukitas, please answer our questions.

Let's start with the easy question.

" After two generations, the Spendthrifts say, "look at those Investors. They have so much more and live much better than we do. This is not ethical!" Are they right, or wrong? "

I answered that question. The story about the virtuous investors and the layabout spendthrifts is a myth. A useful myth, as it allows us to justify our 'right to more', but a myth nonetheless. And even if the story ever happened, the principle that children should not pay for the sins of their fathers forces the issue. Redistribution becomes a moral necessity, even though it will feel extremely unfair to the hypothetical virtuous investors. But even the well-off side in this story would be the lucky inheritors of good investors. No personal merit involved. The only thing keeping them from sharing alike would be a tenuous sense of entitlement.

The hard question is this:

" Which of these six lifestyles is sustainable in perpetuity and which are not? "

Frankly I don't know. Possibly no lifestyle is sustainable in perpetuity. The window for human habitability is very small. If we had been around in human form at the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs, it is highly questionable that we would have survived. If I remember right, Earth would have been deadly to humans for more than eighty percent of it's history. If we don't get a big asteroid impact, and human life survives global warming, we might have another couple of gigabillion years before the sun gets too hot. In the long run, we're dead anyhow.

In the short term, sustainable is what it means. What can be sustained. A system of producing food that will supply the same amount 100 or 300 or 400 years hence. And a population no greater than the number who can survive on that amount of food.

So we start by figuring out how much we can produce, then we know how many we can feed, and then we find out how to make the numbers correspond.

In a catastrophic situation, you don't start with determining what's desirable, you start by determining what's available. Then you figure out which desirable outcomes can be created with what is at hand.

Our present lifestyle will only be sustained for a few more years, maybe months. One could say, that except for a few rich people, most of us are already experiencing diminishing lifestyles.

If we became very smart and coalesced into small, egalitarian food producing communities, we could probably hold out quite a while at a population level not much less than today's. We would still have to drastically reduce our numbers if we wanted to give the earth a chance to regenerate some of what we destroyed. But birthrates only drop when expectations are low, so we would have to go through a few generations of misery.

If the kind of understanding I expounded in the posts above could pierce the n oise directed at the masses, we might have a chance at saving ourselves, and even if we didn't save ourselves, we could leave on a high note.

But I don't see it happening. The rich are already making war on the poor. And they describe the poor to us as savage barbarians who procreate like rabbits. And the poor won't take it, aren't taking it. Look around the world: Latin America is leaning more to the left at practically every election, Nigerian 'terrorists' have managed to force talks with the government about oil revenues, nn India, Naxalite rebels are performing an 'unseen' revolution, and the recent riots in Greece are no accident either.

I see civil wars on the horizon, but this time, those who promise steak every day cannot be but lying. Those who promise an equal division of what is left will be listened to. They will not necessarily propose the best way to achieve this blessed state of affairs. We should be thinking very, very seriously about the best way to achieve a more just society. It is the only way we can mitigate the ongoing sh*tstorm.

Adam Smith talked about nascent capitalism. Marx offered an analysis of capitalism in full flower. We are faced with the end of growth, we need to think our own way through this.

None of the relic ideologies have the right answers to our predicament. Most if not all the -isms are wrong or plain stupid. Time to start thinking for ourselves.

Not only would mechanical springs represent a very large investment in high-grade materials, they have poor round-trip efficiency. You would be better off simply lifting a large mass up using a winch, which at least does not require spring steel.

Good point. On the other hand, a winch does not provide the transportability that I was interested in.

Assuming you have large trees, I suppose you could rig up something that uses the trees for support. However, I am not quite sure what you would need to power that has a small power consumption (otherwise you might as well just power it yourself directly and continuously, because you will not store much PE in any kind of portable device. What use did you have in mind for this energy store?

I think you must have read one to many greenhouse books. We will all be dead and burried before the wind disapears. If not we will be totaly F*** anyway.

I am happy to read that my article inspires the readers of TOD. To be honest, when it comes to efficiency, I don't know if it would be a better idea to convert kinetic energy directly to mechanical energy instead of using electricity. I ask the question, but I don't know the answer. Some of you have made some objections, and these might be correct, I am not an expert on this.

A sure advantage of traditional windmills is their low embodied energy - and I think embodied energy is all too often completely forgotten when we are discussing renewable energies and "green" gadgets (not so much on TOD, but pretty much everywhere else).

Also, what Dutch medieval society teaches us, I think, is that you can have an industry completely relying on wind energy without the need for a storage technology. No wind today? Ah, let's take a day off then. We can saw those trunks tomorrow, or the day after. The Dutch had horse mills, but these were mostly used to power processes that required a steady output. The millers did not immediately bring in the horses when there was a calm. Nevertheless, industrial output was high.

Today this might also mean: there is a storm coming tonight, let's turn on the flat screen television, do the laundry and turn on all the lights! No wind? Then let's have a walk or go to bed early. Of course this should not be so extreme, but I am just trying to say that for every technological solution we are trying to find, there is a no-tech alternative that, if also applied (or accepted), might make the technological challenge quite a bit easier.

This is exactly the point I make repeatedly, but most people can't seem to hear it. Why shouldn't the rhythm of our lives be based around natural variability. We mostly still go to bed at night, but we still can't imagine living in a world where we take a day off if the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining.

I think the idea that we should be able to be completely unaffected in our daily routine by natural variation is a deep part of our disease.

Indeed. Stack the poles, sharpen the saws and pick the corn when the wind isn't blowing. Saw the firewood, shell and grind the corn when it is.

Its that pesky protestant work ethic. Before the reformation it was common for most people to take a holiday on Saints days too. That would take approximatly 100 working days off of a year.

"holiday on Saints days too. That would take approximatly 100 working days off of a year"

Sounds good to me.

I second that whole heartedly.

When I commercial fished a beach site (very oil dependent when I did it but not the point) the clock had little relevance except for establishing beginning and ending times for openings (up to five weeks continuous some seasons, plenty long enough to fall into the natural clock free rhythm). Tide and wind and how the fish (predominantly red salmon) were running ruled almost all our actions. It was by far the most satisfying work I have ever done and the no clock aspect had to be a very big contributor to that.

Great post Kris (thanks for sending it our way Gail). Just wondering does your Decker surname make you at all related to the Dekkers deep in the post?

Actually, Luke, I was wondering myself. As far as I know we are not related, but I should try and find out...

This is exactly the point I make repeatedly, but most people can't seem to hear it. Why shouldn't the rhythm of our lives be based around natural variability. We mostly still go to bed at night, but we still can't imagine living in a world where we take a day off if the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining.

This is an indication of how strong our financial maximizing ideology has penetrated into our heads. We cannot concieve of only being able to work when the conditions are right. And we seek maximum return on capital investment -so to our modern bean-counter smitten brains, it is inconcievable. But, it would probably be a happier way to live.

I have bought a lot more alarm clocks than I have ever worn out-because for most of my life when I came off of a time clock or salary job I sailed them into the woods by thier cords and kept no clock or television until the next job-sometimes that was a year or even two years.Every job I have ever had was a temporary job- but the people who hired me never seemed to catch on.

A clock and a calender are the worst kind of slave masters-I go to bed when I feel like it, get up when I feel like it , and work when I feel like it, mostly-some things have to be done every day.

Of course the result is that I have very little money.

But I would do it again the same way.

In the end you have your family, your friends, and your time-a few people are lucky enough to have truly meaningful work.All things human are temporary.

Most of us don't realize this until it's too late.

Kris -- Intersting...thanks. I hadn't thought about a possible connection before but perhaps the very long history of small windmills in Texas might have contributed a little bit to us having more wind power then any other state. Not that they are unique to Texas but we have thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of small windmill drawing water from shallow pools. Across our dry southern and western reaches you can hardly drive more then a minute or so without seeing one of those 30' or 40' towers topped with a rather simple fan-like blade system. They don't move much water volume but it's done for the cattle so every little bit help. Talking about windmills in general here isn't new.

Yes, I did not write much about American windmills because otherwise the story would be twice as long. But, it seems that some were rather sophisticated, too, and I was told they were sometimes used to saw wood.

Great article that really has struck a chord. It has been featured in at least six sites/blogs that I read daily!

It makes great points both about localization of energy production and certainly does beg the question about energy conversion efficiency. How high could we get the efficiency if we used modern design techniques and analysis, but don't incorporate exotic materials? For example, Paul MacCready designed the Gossamer Condor and won the human powered flight prize on the cheap using not much more than bailing wire and plastic wrap, but with also some very sophisticated analyses of the airfoil and propeller screw shapes.

Kris De Decker -

That was one of the most interesting and beautifully done articles I have ever seen on TOD in a long time! I will definitely save it. If some of your other stuff is this well done, then we definitely need to see more of you here.

I think your article nicely fits into what is in the US sometimes called 'appropriate technology', a term I think coined in the early 1970s to describe those low-tech, highly pragmatic ways of introducing technological improvements into the Third World without relying on a complex industrial infrastructure.

I was quite aware of some design aspects of those old windmills, and one of the things that has always fascinated me was that they had wooden gears. Now at first glance, that might seem hopelessly crude, but some wooden mechanical components, when designed and built right, can last an incredibly long time. And of course, the significant thing here is that one doesn't need a whole industrial supply chain to produce wooden gears .... just some skilled woodworkers who both know their wood and know what they are doing. (I also think that the large frictional losses of those old windmills had more to do with the bearings than the gears.)

So, I find this article somewhat inspirational, in that it shows what can be done when things get tough. If our entire modern industrial base were to be wiped out tomorrow, it would still be possible to do vital and useful work via wooden windmills. hardly efficient by any means, but I think modern society has always had a problem of confusing efficiency with effectiveness.

It is no accident that the millwrights merged with the carpenters back in the earliest days of those unions. The wooden gear is still a part of the UBC emblem. I just downloaded Sir William Fairbairn's 19th century 'Treatise on Mills and Millwork' from Google books (11mb). His preface paints an interesting picture of those tradesmen/designer/engineers. The body of the work has lots of stuff for mechanically inclined tinkerers.

A very nice article. Thank you for making this material accessible to those of us not familiar with it!

Kris, excellent, thank you so much. I particularly enjoyed reading about the improvements happening in the late 1700's. Ingenuity at work!

Nice write-up.

By the way,

The highest tower mill ever constructed was made entirely out of wood.

Actually the highest wind turbine tower may again be made out of wood:

Wood is soft, but it actually has a higher strength to weight ratio than steel. It is easy to transport, doesn't need to be mined, has no corrosion-issues and a wooden tower does capture carbon.

Wow, this is interesting, thank you!

Wow.. that's cool..

and Kris; let me add my thanks for this article as well.. it's travelling far and wide.

Thought I might add a link to the early (much earlier, it seems) use of Windpower in China, just to remind us all that sometimes 'Shakespeare does sound best in the original Klingon!' (Star Trek 6, The Undiscovered Country.. god, I'm a geek~!)

The effect of wind power was appreciated in China long before the introduction of the windmill during the Song period. It is uncertain when the ancient Chinese used their very first inflatable bellows as wind-blowing machines for kilns and furnaces. They existed perhaps as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE–1050 BCE), due to the intricate bronze casting technology of the period.

(they continue with a lot of details about Chinese Windpower Applications.. unsurprisingly brilliant. 'What a piece of work is Man..'

trees, gotta love 'em . We cut them down and make great stuff out of them and more grow. Yeah they get abused and what's happening in the tropics is unprecedented but a place like Massachusetts is an eye openner. In the early 1800s we had knocked it down to about 15% forest cover. Fly in from the west today and the forest never seems to stop all the way up into Boston. Massachusetts is now about 85% forest cover. A balance could be achievable. I wonder how many trees that wind tower could keep from being burned as firewood during its lifetime?

The reason wood makes such good towers is because of its high stiffness to weight ratio, which is different from strength to weight ratio. Wood is actually a very good material for a lot of applications, the problem is that it is not adapted to mass production because of the variable nature of the material. Also it rots.

Standardization is why we have plywood and other laminates.  Rotting is why we have Accoya™.

Wood is soft, but it actually has a higher strength to weight ratio than steel.

Only partly right.

First, the tehnsile-strengh/weight is better for wood by a factor 1.5 ... 3, but the compression-strengh/weight ratio is around 1 to 1, the shear-strengh/weight ratio wood/steel is only 0.2 ... 0.5!

Another problem of cource is the much lower compressive-module which means that a wood-construction is not very stiff.

But of cource wood is a very interesting construction-material.

Timbertower must be working these tradeoffs in if they think they have a system capable of supporting a wind turbine 200 meters off the ground. I wish their site showed a little better pictures of the laminated timber panels/mods? that are the heart of their system. Wood laminates are very interesting, I always wondered how they account for glue failure over time, but then I swiched out of engineering when I overslept and missed a math exam way back in my freshman year at the U.

First, the tehnsile-strengh/weight is better for wood by a factor 1.5 ... 3, but the compression-strengh/weight ratio is around 1 to 1, the shear-strengh/weight ratio wood/steel is only 0.2 ... 0.5!

That's why the wood layers of the timber tower are glued together so that adjacent plies have their grain at right angles to each other to offset these issues (-> plywood). And shear strength is not relevant in this tower application (the nuts and bolts are still made out of steel).

And I think your numbers are too low:
Pine has a tensile-strength of 100 N/mm^2, a compression-strength of 50 N/mm2 and a density of 0.48 kg/dm^3.
Construction steel has a tensile-strength of 370 N/mm^2 and a density of 7.85 kg/dm^3.
So pine has an over 4 times higher tensile-strength to weight ratio and a 2 times higher compression-strength to weight ratio than construction steel.

Keep also in mind that wood is less susceptible to fatigue than steel, which is important given the fact that the tower has to last more than 20 years and is constantly exposed to varying loads.

Another problem of cource is the much lower compressive-module which means that a wood-construction is not very stiff.

That's why the diameter of the timber tower is larger than that of a steel tower. Keep in mind: The stiffness of a round structure is proportional to the diameter^4! (Besides, this is not a very important feature as there are no people on the top of the tower who could potentially get motion sick.)

Also it rots.

Only if the wood is not properly dried and partially in water. Considering the fact that many wooden houses in central Europe are over 500 years old and their wood is not even treated it's obviously not an issue.

This (untreated) wooden house in central Europe was built 1176:

This (untreated) wooden tower in Gliwice (Gleiwitz)/Poland was built 1935 by Germans and is 118 meters high and still standing:

Water powered mills were – overall – more important and numerous than windmills. This is logical since they are a simpler and more reliable technology; the flow of a river might change according to the seasons, but generally a river always contains water. Moreover, by making use of canals and sluice gates the flow of water could be precisely controlled to provide the speed or load required by the gearwork inside the factory.

Another reason is also, that liquid water has almost 1000 times more density than air and therefore the turbine can also be made way way smaller in order to reach the same power rating.

As an example, this single water turbine has a power rating of 423 MW. That's ~567,000 HP:

So let's have it then.

This was a fascinating and informative article based on wind power.

Can you do the same for water (without talking about building the new Hoover Dam of course)?

I can do the same for water but I am afraid it will not be such a positive story. It is correct that waterwheels can generate much more power, but the problem is that there is not that much water around. Already in the middle ages all available energy in European streams and rivers was put to use. That is why windmills eventually appeared in countries that had lots of good rivers, too. People were fighting over water resources, because if I build a waterwheel upstream of yours, yours will not generate that much power anymore.

These are all the European style windmill, pretty much. I'm partial to the American windmill, the light, mass-produced version that made its mark across the arid West — and all over the world where there were shallow aquifers and lots of wind.

Estimates for the numbers of American windmills produced by the hundreds of windmill manufacturers run up to 6 million from the 1850s through Second World War. What's fascinating is that they had their best years around the turn of the century, when steam and internal combustion engines were already widely available. Why? They were cheap. Agricultural journals of the day recognized wind power as the cheapest pumping power available. The fuel distribution infrastructure was nowhere near as comprehensive as it is today. If you were in some far flung place, it wasn't easy to get what you needed.

Another advantage of wind power is that they were conceptually simple enough for many to build their own, which kept a lot of the poor settlers in Kansas and Nebraska alive and in place during the periodic droughts on the plains.

Anyway, thanks Kris! Nice work!

Great Link! .. and right after my own heart!

Beyond mere survival, windmills made life better in dozens of ways. They made life in vast tracts of the United States livable for real communities. That’s why their worth can’t be measured purely in terms of horsepower.

“The windmill has an important effect on population,” Barbour continued. “Without this, emigration would result, and the State would lose not only important industries, but desirable citizens with their retinue of helpers.”

“Shop-made” windmills were considered very high-caliber, but beyond the reach of many small farmers. Besides, why pay when you could build your own from the scrap materials on your farm for almost nothing?


Available data on the reserves of exotic resources required for many eco-technologies look grim, and some time ago it was heard that China (the main producer of important ecotech metals) plans to restrict the export of those metals. Windmills that convert kinetic energy directly to mechanical work could be operated without exotic materials.

It may be accidental, but the wording of this seems to suggest that turbines that produce electricity cannot work without "exotic materials"... which is, obviously, not the case.

While on the subject I would like to see a comprehensive article on neodymium. It's a subject that's hard to find information on. Contrary to popular belief, neodymium, a rare earth metal, is not all that rare on Earth. Only the economically viable deposits are rare.

In a low-power "no-tech" future, I would think that turbine generators would forgo the benefits of neodymium and whether we can get enough to run a Prius is besides the point. In a high power, eco-tech future, perhaps we would be able to extract the element from less attractive sources than the rare-earth compounds? I don't know... but I would like to.

I read somewhere, the Atlantic I think, that many of the rare earth deposits not mined now are avoided because they are radioactive from thorium... in a world where thorium could be an energy supply, would this mean that neodymium mining might be, in some cases, able to fuel itself with nuclear power? I don't know.

My point is, a lot of people fling around suspect quotes about the rare earth metals without really knowing anything about them. I'd like to see research on this from experts.

Contrary to popular belief, neodymium, a rare earth metal, is not all that rare on Earth. Only the economically viable deposits are rare.

And even if it was rare: Contrary to the believe most wind generators do not have permanent magnets and thus do not have rare earth metals and do not need rare earth metals. Most wind turbines have synchronous generators with electro-magnets (not permanent magnets).

we can get enough to run a Prius is besides the point

Although the Prius does have permanent magnets in its electric motors/generators (it has two), most electric motors do not. In fact the EV 'Tesla roadster' has no permanent magnets in its powerful electric induction (or asynchronous) motor.

The Wrightspeed X1 EV with the Tesla motor is faster than pretty much any Lamborghini or Ferrari or NASCAR WITHOUT rare earth metals:

So, who cares about rare earth metals?

The thorium and rare earth deposit probably is the one in Idaho owned by Lightbridge Corp., formerly Thorium Power.

The company's focus has changed to one of selling nuclear technology and consulting services for safer nuclear fuel cycles.

Most wind turbines in use today do not use a permanent magnet generator, they use a DFIG which is a fancy form of induction machine made mostly out of copper and iron.

Incidentally there was recently stories about a major rare-earth mining development in iceland now that it's become economically viable, but I can't find any links to the story.

crobar on October 30, 2009: Most wind turbines in use today do not use a permanent magnet generator, they use a DFIG which is a fancy form of induction machine made mostly out of copper and iron.

Incidentally there was recently stories about a major rare-earth mining development in iceland now that it's become economically viable, but I can't find any links to the story.

Try this (Greenland not Iceland though) from The Times (of London)- Greenland challenge to Chinese over rare earth metals.

This is a great post. I frequently get irritated by people who claim that without fossil fuels we will be technologically helpless and will head all the way back to the neolithic or further. As this post makes clear industrialization came into existence centuries before the steam engine did.

One thing I have often wondered about the direct conversion of wind energy to mechanical energy is whether the incorporation of flywheels for short term energy storage might improve performance in variable conditions. Does anyone know if the concept has ever been tried, or is there something obviously wrong with it?

Another idea for the conversion of wind energy to mechanical energy that I have read about is using wind to compress air and then using the air to run pneumatic tools. I suspect that the compressed air to mechanical energy route is much less efficient than direct drive. However, using electricity to compress air for pneumatic tools is also very inefficient from an energy point of view, and yet it is done all the time because there are certain industrial tasks for which pneumatic tools are greatly superior to electric ones. So it is conceivable that a subset of manufacturing tasks exist for which such a wind/pneumatic hybrid might be useful. One advantage of using compressed air is that it automatically provides some amount of energy storage to buffer wind variability.

One thing I have often wondered about the direct conversion of wind energy to mechanical energy is whether the incorporation of flywheels for short term energy storage might improve performance in variable conditions. Does anyone know if the concept has ever been tried, or is there something obviously wrong with it?

The wind-turbine manufacturer Enercon sells flywheels for stand-alone systems.

But as long as there's a grid there's no need for this:

Inter-connected wind farms not only provide baseload they also reduce wind power peak generation:
In fact, all the wind farms in Spain combined never generated over 65% of their combined maximum power rating.
(On April 18, 2008 the all time peak for wind generation was seen with 10,879 MW while Spain has 16,740 MW of maximum wind capacity installed).

There was a terrific, simple website years back by a Rancher up in Idaho, I think, who used windpower to pump air into a big old converted NG(?) tank, and would pull from that 'Battery' to pump water to his cows, to run tools, run a generator when other AC was offline.

Couldn't find it tonight.. maybe someday it'll show up again..

Brilliant post.
Big hug and thank you from Holland.

Fantastic post !

This is exactly the sort of fusion of old and new and thinking that I see as our future.

One note for mechanical uses storing excess energy as compressed air makes sense. This is what the Amish do to deal with the vagaries of wind power. Its less efficient but also lets you manage your schedule.

Regardless I love the synthesis.

Another way to look at it is does the windmill grind all the grain that needs to be ground ?
Or pump all the water that needs to be pumped ?

Optimize your variables to solve the problem once its solved its solved. If you meet your needs and a incremental improvement increases cost to much why do it ?

The article mentioned many windmills stayed with wooden gearing.

Why take on more expense using metal if you solved your problem with wood that cost nothing but labor ?

Certainly metals cheap these days and I see no reason for it to get expensive so we have a lot simply mining our existing garbage heaps an incorrect infrastructure.

One question was any attempt made to look at why the wood gears where inefficient where where the losses in the wooden designs. I'd have to suspect they could be improved perhaps quite a bit with a bit of good engineering.

Maybe small changes and just a few metal parts could make a big difference.

Found this excellent link on evolution of flour mills:

I have no more information about the exact inefficiencies of the wood gears, but you make a good point. Windmills are still an interesting technology without high-tech improvements. Wooden parts are cheap, easy to make and easy to repair, anyone can do it. This becomes harder with steel parts and that might help to explain why many mills kept being built entirely out of wood. One drawback, however, seems to be fire. It were mostly sparks from wooden gears and brakes that set windmills on fire.

Great history article . But any modern synchrous wind wind generator will blow the pants of the machines you describe. As mentioned further up, direct mechanical drive is inefficient ,dangerous and hard to control compared to electric. look up old pictures of turn of the centuary cotton mills.Also how many farmers are killed or injured by PTO shafts each year. If things get realy bad the amount of gearing,bearings and axles from scraped trucks that could easily be put to use in home built turbines to do away with the wood gearing.

delete this please.

The best application of metal parts in those mills would be bearings. Wooden high-tolerance gears solve a number of problems; they make it easy to manufacture and they make it easier to get everything aligned because of how imprecise everything is to begin with. I do not think there is much improvement possible to those mills using modern knowledge and period tools and materials. A combination of modern bearings (These would require metal axles, because the thick wood axles necessary would not fit through the bearing) and better gear tooth design (still wooden, though) would improve efficiency. Aside from going to a metal gearbox connected to its input and output shafts using universal joints and splines (what you find underneath every truck with RWD or AWD) to replace the inefficient bevel gears, there is not too much else you can do.

Using tighter tolerances also means the structure needs to be stiffer and more dimensionally stable, which might not be realistic in a wooden structure with a giant windmill attached to it. Universal joint and spline assemblies from trucks could alleviate this, and would last a long time in that low-power indoor environment, but really, I don't think modern knowledge could improve on those windmills in a significant way without modern manufacturing.

I think our math and aerodynamic modeling has made considerable gains, and even without every compound that we enjoy under Petrol's reign, we now have a lot more knowledge about synthetics for lubrication, adhesives/composites and a more unified approach to engineering design, all of which could conspire to advance the state of the art regardless of the high energy and related materials that we also take for granted today.

We've been pretty spoiled, but we also learned a lot of new tricks in the last couple centuries that can persist with or without this glut of cheap power.

Important comment ...

I see what your saying. Either cheap and local and made using hand tools or you start dragging in more and more complexity cost and infrastructure.

Ceramic bearings might be doable in a low tech or medium tech way. Perhaps some types of stone could also be used either as bearings or races. Fluid stone bearings are possible.

At Disneyland and other amusement parks I've seen huge stone balls suspended on water fountains the kids roll around.

I have to think a hydrostatic bearing made of marble is doable.

Gears are a real problem. Not really gears but materials to make gears.

Ceramic gears do exist.

Modern magnets off and interesting alternative to mechanical gears.

And fluid couplings aka automatic transmissions.

Of course you have the abandoned Tesla turbine.

The nice thing about it are the disks are simply flat disks. One has to wonder if they function in a fluid coupling.

This is really nothing more than a hydrostatic bearing but designed to transfer energy instead of allowing slip.

It seems to me that hydrostatics is about the only route away from mechanical gears.

The nice thing about that route is it opens up possibilities for fluidic controls.

Assuming this route is viable then you have a need for at least some high pressure pipes however here composite or even metal pipes work. The nice thing about this if you can get it to this point the pipe lasts a long time and is a small part of the overall system. Also the hydrostatic approach although it has tolerance requirements is in my opinion far more forgiving then metal gears.

Questionable rifles are made in small shops in Afghanistan and the pressure requirements although different are not all that much different from your black powder rifles so a variant of rifle manufacturing using fairly primitive machine shops could produce the required piping.

Continuing your probably will still have problems if you got this far with needing cases that can withstand high pressure but perhaps this is not the problem it seems or a elegant design can avoid it.

One wonders what a case made out of stone using wooden barrel stave design could handle. If your clever with the design heck you might even get away with hoops made of rope. I've got no idea what kind of pressures a wood barrel could handle and of course there are always composite concepts and even natural fiber composites are pretty good.

In any case hydrostatics seems to be about the only really interesting route if you want to reduce the problem to natural materials and labor as much as possible.

Memmel, The idea of hydrostatic bearings (or even pneumatic bearings) could be taken one step further by constructing the large Keinetic Energy (KE) windmill to have a much smaller windmill on the top that just pumps and pressurizes lubricating oil (or air for pnuematic bearings)

When there is no wind the big KE windmill is "dead" in its non-pressurized hydrostatic bearings (high friction). As the wind appears it first spins the smaller oil-pumping windmill which brings the hydrostatic bearings to life (low friction). As soon as the bearings are pressurized the big KE windmill experiences very little friction and can begin to turn.

Probably best to design in a small reserve of pressurized oil so that the big KE windmill can gently deaccelerate when the wind dies...

That is a very interesting idea. The way I understand it, a more efficient auxiliary windmill pressurizes oil to supply the bearings of a larger windmill with pressurized oil when the wind blows, and a hydraulic accumulator ensures that some oil pressure is available for long enough to stop the bearing. I am not an expert on bearings, but I assume the actively-pressurized fluid bearing you are describing does not suffer from the high startup/stop wear of self-pressurized bearings.

Also fluid couplings are not automatic transmissions, they are analogous to a centripetal clutch. They work because a) they never lock, so any sudden torsional loads cannot cause damage b) they do not transmit power at low RPMs, meaning an engine connected to a transmission by one won't stall. I think what you are thinking of is a fluid transmission, which is basically just a hydraulic pump/turbine pair with a variable drive ratio. They are not used in automatic transmissions because of low efficiency.

Yes fluid transmission.

And yes there are losses but this is a different problem if it does a lot better then wood great :)

The comment was hard to write because I added in using simpler Tesla Turbines.

The disks might even be made from wood if this approach worked. And of course you could always pattern or grove the disks so that they where a hybrid turbine design.

Effectively your windmill is nothing more than a closed loop water/hydraulic fluid turbine of some design.
Your just running a compressor turbine that runs a secondary conversion turbine of some sort.

It could be air water a fluid etc.

Greg had a cool idea you could have a secondary turbine to pressurize the system before the man blade start.
Very cool.
And of course you can used some sort of storage either compressed air or compressed hydraulic fluid or even a very simple heavy weight to spin the system up.

Probably the simplest is instead of or maybe in addition to a smaller secondary turbine you simple have a very heavy mass aka grandfather clock to spin up the hydraulic system.

Excellent and fascinating report, but for the future, reliability and transmission issues are huge. Gene Preston had some very insightful comments on reliability and transmission issues in response to the recent Scientific American article.

I am a pro transmission advocate. My business is TAC, Transmission Adequacy Consulting. Pro transmission is also being pro renewables. I get a lot of business doing transmission studies for wind and solar clients. I have never received any money doing transmission studies for a nuclear plant or coal plant - anywhere! So if I have a special interest, it is in seeing that solar and wind projects develop as described by you Dan and by Jacobson in his paper on page 58 of the Nov 09 issue of Scientific American. However, the reality is that nearly all the transmission lines that currently exist throughout the US were sized to be just barely adequate for providing a reliable supply of power. What do I mean by reliable? Well, in the simplest terms it means that loss of a single line anywhere does not cause a cascading blackout of a large part of the system, like a whole city, or a large load area. So let's say that we want to put 20,000 MW of solar power in the desert areas of the SW US. That would require several 500 kV transmission lines of several hundred miles each. It will take years and years of endless hearing and environmental assessment impact studies before those lines would be approved. You would have land owners fighting the lines, i.e. not in my back yard arguments. This means that multiple routes would have to be developed and studied. All this takes time. The notion that we can install these solar plants in the desert quickly is just purely wishful thinking. Who is going to pay for the cost of 10,000 miles (a reasonable guess when you include multiple paths and interconnections with several load areas) of the new 500 kV lines? …

You can't just hang the wind generators on existing lines, because they would quickly overload. That's what happened in Texas, a lot of wind was installed in West Texas until the system started overloading and the breakup and collapse problem arose. The wind generators kept building in Texas anyway and at the present time there is about twice the amount of wind that the transmission system can handle without overloading or breaking up and collapsing the system. Currently wind generators are being curtailed to about half their full output in west Texas because of transmission constraints. The Texas CREZ $5 billion dollar investment in transmission lines is actually a catch up process to allow those existing wind generators to operate as planned up to their full output power. The wind generators will keep piling into Texas as long as the economics are there, even causing overloads, assuring that the system is maxed out with wind. Texas is power line friendly compared to California. How do the Californians ever think they can implement the renewable plans while they are so opposed to transmission…

Looking at the graph on the SA article nov 09 issue on page 63, I have estimated that the amount of wind on that graph is 40,000 MW to serve CA load plus another 40,000 MW centralized solar, probably in the desert. That's 80,000 MW of power. If each line carried 1500 MW nominally, that’s about 50 new 500 kV lines. In addition, there will be times when CA has no wind or solar (a calm night) and would have to import its power from other areas of the US, so that means there would need to be about 50 500 kV lines tying CA to the rest of the US. Let’s say that the average distance of power plants and wind area to loads is about 500 miles. Then the WWS power plants would need about 50 times 500 or 25000 miles of new 500 kV lines. To connect CA to the rest of the US would require about 50 500 kV lines that are 2000 miles long or 100,000 miles of new 500 kV lines. Thats a total of 125000 miles of new 500 kV lines by 2030. Thats just 20 years. So we would need to add 6250 miles of new 500 kV lines each year to the system to reach the 2030 target. Now I would think this is a rather severe shortcoming I have pointed out about the article in SA. Not only that, I can easily show that this system will not even work electrically. The solar and wind generators cannot control the reactive powers in this system. Its essentially going to self destruct with over voltages at times.

The massive subsidy payments we are making to rapidly expand wind farm construction are going to produce growing problems with reliability and capacity factor as time goes on.

We would be much better off spending that money on R&D, mostly D, to create reliable inexpensive sources of clean energy that are cheaper than fossil fuel.

The massive subsidy payments we are making

Besides that the wind power industry in Germany generated over 90'000 sustainable jobs and exports over 83% of its wind-turbines and the 17% wind turbines for domestic use are paid for by rate payers and not tax-payers: Wind energy reduced the German electricity prices more than what the Germans pay for the feed-in tariffs:,2147183

to rapidly expand wind farm construction are going to produce growing problems with reliability and capacity factor as time goes on.

You mean reliability problems like this?

Seven German nuclear plants have failed to generate any electricity this month due to technical breakdowns. They have about half the production capacity of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors, but Germany did not suffer any power shortages.

We would be much better off spending that money on R&D,

You mean you would like to copy the nuclear model:

Nuclear power has dominated government spending on energy research and development, accounting for over US$159 billion between 1974 and 1998. Although its share has fallen, it still accounts for 51% of the OECD energy R&D budget.

If the nuclear model has to be copied, it would make sense to also introduce huge tax-payer institutions such as IAEA and EURATOM to promote wind energy.

Well, at least if we copy the nuclear model for wind power, we would definitely not need tax payers to chip in with any gigantic decommissioning and waste disposal costs.

And if you are worried about the grid, just put solar hot water capacity and PV on existing roofs. They will reduce the load on the grid.
By the way, solar hot water capacity added 2006 worldwide:
China: 80.2%
USA: 0.5%

Or simply invest in affordable HVDC lines like the Brazilians and Chinese do.

In the USA it is estimated that to upgrade the transmission system to take in planned or potential renewables would cost at least $60 billion. Total annual US power consumption in 2006 was 4 thousand billion kWh. Over an asset life of 40 years and low cost utility investment grade funding, the cost of $60 billion investment would be about 5% p.a. (i.e. $3 billion p.a.) Dividing by total power used gives an increased unit cost of around $3,000,000,000 × 100 / 4,000 × 1 exp9 = 0.075 cent/kWh.

The link concerning feed in tariffs and o verall German electrical costs is in German.

I'm sure lots of us linguistically challenged drummers would appreciate it if somebody will post the gist of it for us.

" We would be much better off spending that money on R&D,
You mean you would like to copy the nuclear model:

No, I call for pushing every technology as hard as possible and picking the best, whatever that is. This is the approach that worked for the Manhattan project, lunar landing etc. Why don’t you support this approach?

Money spent on unsuccessful technology is a tiny cost to avoid the risk of cherry picking a solution that is less than optimum.

The amount of money now being spent on commercial energy R&D is a pittance compared to the magnitude of the problem and compared to the amount of money the world spends for energy.

" If the nuclear model has to be copied, it would make sense to also introduce huge tax-payer institutions such as IAEA "

The IAEA was formed in response to the threat of nuclear weapons and it would still be in business if commercial nuclear power did not exist.

You like to blur the distinction between weapons and commercial power. Do you refuse to fly on a Boeing airliner because it uses technology paid for in developing the B-52 bomber?

" Well, at least if we copy the nuclear model for wind power, we would definitely not need tax payers to chip in with any gigantic decommissioning and waste disposal costs. "

In the U.S. these costs are paid for in advance and are tiny per kWh.

In 60-100 years when today’s new plants reach end of life decommissioning procedures will be far advanced, probably using robotic equipment. Most concrete and steel can be recycled.

Windmills require vastly more steel and concrete than nuclear per kWh. Some contracts give the windmills to the naïve land owner after 20 years, giving them the impression that it will be a gold mine for them, not a waste dump.

Nearly all carbon emissions for wind and solar are released before the first kWh is produced, whereas for nuclear half come 20 or more years into production and may well be eliminated.

" Or simply invest in affordable HVDC lines like the Brazilians and Chinese do. "

How long to get permits for 125,000 miles of new lines? Would you welcome one through your back yard?

No, I call for pushing every technology as hard as possible and picking the best, whatever that is. This is the approach that worked for the Manhattan project, lunar landing etc. Why don’t you support this approach?

Actually besides the fact, that there will never be a 'best', the 'best' always depends on the region and what the energy is needed for and how can it most effectively/efficiently be put to use.
I do support this approach, but that would mean that nuclear will have to reduce its share for other options.

Nuclear power has dominated government spending on energy research and development, accounting for over US$159 billion between 1974 and 1998. Although its share has fallen, it still accounts for 51% of the OECD energy R&D budget.

The IAEA was formed in response to the threat of nuclear weapons and it would still be in business if commercial nuclear power did not exist.

Actually, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an international organization that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and to inhibit its use for military purposes.
Obviously it would be much easier to inhibit its use for military purpose, when the same organization would not have to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy at the same time.

Do you refuse to fly on a Boeing airliner because it uses technology paid for in developing the B-52 bomber?

Actually pretty much anything was partially funded by the military. But I do appreciate an airliner because there is currently no alternative to get from A to B so quickly. On the other hand there are many options to get a warm shower and a hot coffee without new nuclear power plants.

Windmills require vastly more steel and concrete than nuclear per kWh. Some contracts give the windmills to the naïve land owner after 20 years, giving them the impression that it will be a gold mine for them, not a waste dump.

Even if your unbacked claim was true: A Vestas 3 MW windturbine requires 300 tons of steel (tower and nacelle):
If you take only 2% of the world's steel production for wind turbines one can produce 270 GW of wind power every single year (the US has 100 GW of nuclear)!
Besides obviously all steel can be recycled unless it's highly contaminated...

In the U.S. these costs are paid for in advance and are tiny per kWh.

Not according to these references (besides that these future-costs are unknown):

How long to get permits for 125,000 miles of new lines? Would you welcome one through your back yard?

Actually the US already has a grid and is currently consuming double as much electricity/capita compared to Germany without having a better lifestyle (and Germany even being an export nation), it's highly doubtful that the US needs 125,000 miles additional HVDC lines to accommodate a significant wind power increase.

Besides there's absolutely no reason for the US to keep ignoring its gigantic roof area which does reduce the load on the grid:
Solar hot water capacity added worldwide (2008):
China: 80.2 %
USA: 0.5 %

Btw, I am already surrounded by transmission lines (high power AC transmission though which as opposed to high power DC can have adverse health effects) and don't mind them. But considering the fact that these lines have to built because there's no grid in place and there's no grid because there is no population in place and one HVDC line can transmit 6400 MW which can provide power for several million people its unlikely that many backyards will be affected by it.

In 2007, Siemens was awarded the first two 800 kV projects in China: Yunnan-Guangdong at 5,000 MW and Xiangjiaba-Shanghai at 6,400 MW.
And if China can so can the US. After all on a technology level the US is not far behind China.

all that tranmission capability would certainly require a lot of copper. In southwest Alaska "Pebble East is estimated to contain (at a copper-equivalent cut-off of 0.6%): Inferred resources of 49 billion pounds of copper, 45 million ounces of gold, and 2.8 billion pounds of molybdenum, contained within 3860 million tonnes of ore" (lifted from here). Of course the mine site is at the headwaters of the biggest wild salmon fishery in the world. Couldn't possibly be any land/water use conflict there. I read a year or two back that by 2020 around a dozen mines of that size will be needed to meet copper demands. Tradeoffs are a bitch.

Most transmission from about a kV and up is aluminium wire. It is more common since aluminium is cheaper per ampere then copper. The lower limit in the use of aluminium is due to the more advanced terminations that needs to break thru the aluminium oxide layer and stay gas tight. Aluminium is also used for large 400 V cabels feeding buldings etc.

But copper is used in manny deep sea cabels since it gives a conductor with lower diamater and thus it needs less insulation and the cable laying ship can take more cable.

I should have known that, thanks, a bit much coffee today :-) At least my 'tradeoffs are a bitch' part of the post is still relevant. I guess we have plenty of other stuff we 'need' copper for...

duplicate post

Industrial processes that can be run when the wind blows and still be profitable can be hooked up to the grid and used durig weekends, nights and when the wind blows well. The do not need to be small scale as long as we have a grid.

Denmark gets 20% of its electricity from wind. During peak wind generation it exported electricity to Norway and Sweden. These two countries had hydroelectric resources. Reservoir water was saved when wind power was imported from Denmark then drawn down when windpower was scarce.

Thank you everybody for the compliments, and the comments - they were at least as inspiring for me as the article was for you.

Wow...what a fantastic site...and a fascinating article - thank you.
I have for some months be thinking about the practicalities of building a wind powered shredder for garden/green waste.

I bought an electric (Bosch) shredder some years ago when I had to remove a tree on a day visit to my Mum. I use it occasionally nowadays to shred old bushes, tree branches etc - partly to reduce their volume (I have a small garden with several trees) and partly to make compost.

(stay with it...)

I imagine that in a future powered down community, running an electric shredder would be too energy hungry, but there would still be a need to shred bulky dead vegetation - besides reducing the size it speeds up decomposition. I invisage a portable wind powered shredder on a mast that could be lowered on a wheel set/trailer for transport and when sited, raised up, possibly supported by guy ropes. It could be moved round within a community or between communities and used when there is enough wind. A fairly simple rotor is linked up to a drive shaft running down the mast, linking to a rotating blade and hopper assembly. A flywheel may be required to cope with instant demand when a tree branch is pushed in the hopper.

The question is, how big would the rotor have to be/how windy to operate/how powerful the shredding action/how efficient the gearing/bearings and shaft?

I have never heard of such a not sure whether the plant growing experts/permaculturalists would see a value in such a device...but I think I could use one! How else do you deal efficiently with bulky tree branchs, short of wasting them by burning?

any thoughts

Buckinghamshire, England

Sounds like a great example also of an application that could be on auto-feed somehow, and just chips/shreds away when it has wind, making whatever progress the winds allow.

It seems the flywheel would be an absolute necessity, considering the way those things rev.down when a bigger branch hits the grinder.. gotta have some mass to carry it through.. of course, that chipping technology was also devised with the expectation of that kind of available force, and a rethink of the feeding speeds or cutting speed could produce a variant that didn't need quite such a 'burst' capacity as that.

I wonder if portability would be better, or to have a 'chipping station' in a community, perhaps with an outflow chute that could be directed to different hoppers or carts, so the material can be transported and divvied up. Since wind apps want higher towers for more power, I would think such a tower might be a center where a number of jobs were able to be done. Could be a Power Take Off to bring your wagon of grain for thrashing or grinding.. there might be a laundry tied to such a rig, also.

(One of my Solar versions of this 'Community Energy Center' (or Family Farm Energy Center, perhaps) is a Large Concentrating Solar Tracking Mirror Dish that can be targeted towards any of its semicircle of buildings that get portions of this 'Timeshared Solar Heat', where one is a Bath/Sauna, One might be a Bakery, One a Laundry, another a Wood-curing shed, a Pottery Kiln, etc, etc..) It might be a couple or a few trackers, so you can mix and match loads.. Mirrors.. I'm telling you.)


Hi Dave. I too have been frustrated with the available machines for shredding bulky organic matter for composting and mulch.

In a future energy-starved world the picture becomes different, such as:
1) those bulky tree branches are suddenly valuable firewood and do not need to be shredded
2) there will be more human labor available, so the rest of the leftovers from gardening can be chopped up by a guy with a chopping block and a machete

That said, I have daydreamed of a pair of hand-cranked rollers with knife blades on one roller that vines and stalks can be fed into and snipped down to little lengths. The big diesel powered hammermills that the modern tree trimming crews use are way too intense an action to scale down to small-scale windpower...

If you still have grid wires, it probably makes more sense to put the windmill someplace where the wind is good, generate electricity and run juice to the shredder (and anything else you might want to run).  This also gets a lot more out of your investment in the windmill.

If you don't have grid wires, an engine-powered shredder could be converted to run on producer gas.  You make producer gas from charcoal or even the pulverized product of your shredder.  The ash from your gasogene goes into the compost or straight to the garden.

To put these windmills into perspective consider a modern paper mill I worked at some years ago. It produced almost 3000 tons of brown packaging box paper every day, running 24/7. That’s about 2 tons every minute. That's enough to fill over 50 railcars each day. Deliveries of wood and chemicals into the mill was by as many as 500 large trucks per day, plus rail cars. This amounted to only a couple percent of the total paper the US produces to make brown corrugated boxes.

The process used tens of thousand horsepower, with individual motors being as large as 3000 hp. I never counted the total number of motors but doubtless there were many hundreds, perhaps a thousand or more, from fractional horsepower to the large ones.

Considering that this is just a small percentage of one product that we consume you can see what an enormous challenge it is to maintain our modern standard of living. Modern wind turbines have their place, but there is no going back to only wind and water power and keeping our current lifestyle.

I don't think thats the goal. The goal is to enjoy a nice life. I.e bath food warm bed access to information.
And of course good wine and beer :)

I've actually visited a lot of Roman ruins and I assure you its a no brainier having to chose between living at the top of Roman society vs living in our "modern world". Rome wins hands down. I'll take my chances with medicine thank you.
Of course I would need slaves but barring that the lifestyle was far better than our own. If living a pampered plush life is your goal.

The goal is to get the job done to have some sort of similar lifestyle without the slaves. I.e everyone can enjoy a decent live without the slavery of debt or the bondage of direct slavery.

This requires machines but they need to be cheap easy to build and efficient enough to reduce labor. Beyond that nothing more is needed.

So going to your post use reusable well made trunks or other permanent containers and ship only the stuff that cannot be made locally then instead of replicating the box factory its simply not needed. Replacement containers if they are robust enough can be made in village workshops often simply refurbishing damaged containers.

No massive factory needed. The actual manufacturing is a skilled labor problem so the workers are well paid and the output is small so inefficient hand tools that are cheap are fine. The laborers skill in building a robust container makes up for the inefficient construction methods.

Whats really funny is the "old ways" actually maximize knowledge and thinking to minimize consumption.
I.e we use the brain we where given to directly build useful items with a minimal tool set and cheap materials.

On reusable containers:

In the '70s I worked for Continental Can. I remember the chairman's talk about steel food cans compared to glass canning jars. Single use steel cans required one tenth of the labor of reusable glass jars.

Of course, our chairman didn't consider the couurgated shipping box, which wouldn't be needed for home canning.

Paul, the numbers on paper production you give are indeed staggering. But, maybe we could live a very decent (modern) life while using much less paper? It is the large output of modern paper production techniques that makes us waste so much paper. Lower the output and we will use the product more wisely.

One way to reduce packaging is to build longer lasting durable goods.

Considering that this is just a small percentage of one product that we consume you can see what an enormous challenge it is to maintain our modern standard of living. Modern wind turbines have their place, but there is no going back to only wind and water power and keeping our current lifestyle.

Granted that we won't power aircrafts, trucks and commercial ships with electricity any time soon.
(Although we can partially power commercial ships with wind):

But keep in mind that hydro is at 16% of world's electricity production and wind power is an order of magnitudes greater source than hydro power.

Consider only European offshore power:

The EEA estimates the technical potential of offshore wind in 2020 at 25,000 TWh, between six and seven times greater than projected electricity demand, rising to 30,000 TWh in 2030, seven times greater than projected electricity demand.

And besides the fact that interconnected wind farms provide baseload and reduce peak production, lots of fossil fuels is still used for heating and hot water purposes which eventually will all have to be substituted by heat pumps and storing low temperature heat is cheap and has already been done for decades. So heat pumps do not require power on demand and can be used to increase and lower demand depending on power output (the same with electric cars). And the fossil fuel not wasted in fossil heaters can still be used in flexible combined heat power plants.
Switzerland has relatively well insulated houses and lots of heat pumps, but is still using more energy in form of oil and natural gas for heating and hot water purposes than its using energy in form of electricity!

Also, don't forget solar power:
Between 2004 and 2008, solar heating capacity doubled to 145 GWth. Granted that this happened mostly in China but then again the Chinese also don't need to spend all their money on bankers.

At the end of the day it's a simple question of priorities: Do we want to keep our lifestyle or do we want to save Wall Streets bonuses and keep funding expensive weaponry.

Fantastic article, especially the link of references. I worked in central northwest Texas and was fascinated by the windfarms. We were doing 3D seismic and picked up low frequency ground roll from the wind mills. They are beautiful to watch.

I forgot to comment on this:

The Netherlands had 5 times more windmills in 1850 than it has wind turbines today.

Perhaps true, but look at the capacities claimed in the article itself.  The classic windmills had power up to about 40 HP (~30 kW) at the sails, with the 20th century versions achieving up to 125 HP (~93 kW).

A modern commercial wind turbine has a power rating of about 1.5 megawatts on the small end, up to 5 MW currently (the practical limit is believed to be around 10 MW).  They are also sited better, elevated into higher winds.  There may be just 1/5 as many turbines today, but as a conservative estimate they are producing around 50 times as much energy.

Obviously. One thing you do not take into account here, however, is population growth. The Netherlands has 5 times more inhabitants now as it did in 1850. So per capita, today's wind turbines are only producing 10 times as much energy as those 9,000 windmills.

I really enjoyed and appreciated this history of windmills wrap-up. Thanks very much.