The renewable energy of the future is already beginning to generate new jobs to replace the ones that are disappearing in the older energy sectors.
This is not your grandfather's windmill
Think of the Netherlands, and what may come to mind is a quaint countryside of historic canal houses, fields of tulips, and--of course--those ubiquitous windmills. Though the Netherlands today is a highly urban and technologically sophisticated nation, that image of the "old" country still plays a large role in the country's economy--as a lure to millions of tourists. It's fascinating to consider that these windmills were, for centuries, the main sources of mechanical energy before the dawn of the fossil fuel age--that such silent, pleasant-looking contraptions could have provided the power needed to pump water, grind grain, saw timber, and do a wide range of other tasks now done by loud, polluting machines. To the tourists, the relation between these quaint windmills and the modern diesel turbines or giant coal-burning power plants that have replaced them may seem as distant as that of schooners to speedboats.
Enter the new high-tech wind generators of today, which began appearing two decades ago and have proliferated in the Netherlands and in some 40 other countries so far. Unlike their predecessors, the modern wind turbines do not directly operate pumps, sluice-gates, or grindstones, but generate the basic commodity-electricity--needed to run any modern industrial economy. These new wind turbines are as different from the old windmills in their use of wind as a telephone wire is different from a 19th-century church bell in its use of copper.
While providing a means of reducing global-warming gases and other air pollution in a way that is now becoming competitive with coal and oil in sheer cost per kilowatt-hour, the new wind-power also offers an advantage that has been largely ignored during the last few years of booming stock markets--but that will prove enormously important as the 21st century unfolds: it is not only a clean, competitive energy source but is a rich source of new employment. Whereas some defenders of the entrenched oil and coal interests predict that major efforts to stabilize climate change will spell economic doom, the evident capacity of wind power to deliver cost-effective power and new employment makes a compelling case that good environmental policy can also be good economic policy.
As far back as 200 B.C., windmills were used to pump water in China and to grind grain in Persia and the Middle East. In medieval Europe, merchants and crusaders returning from the Holy Land introduced this technology to their homelands, and windmills were erected in numerous places on the continent. By the early 15th century, in England alone, the use of animal power to grind grain--cattle pulling large stones in circles--had been supplanted by some 10,000 windmills. But it was in the Netherlands that windmill design evolved most over the ensuing centuries, producing incremental improvements in aerodynamic lift, rotor efficiency, and rotor speed. The Dutch relied on wind power to help drain the numerous lakes and marshes that made the Rhine river delta barely habitable and to hold their own against frequent and devastating floods. From the Netherlands, England, and elsewhere in Europe, wind technology reached the New World with the waves of settlers crossing the Atlantic. In the late 19th century, windmills were used on a massive scale to pump water for farms and ranches in the American West. Between 1850 and 1970, over 6 million mostly small units were installed in the United States.
Predictably, when it became apparent that electricity would be the elixir of the new industrial economy, efforts were made to put wind energy to use in generating it. Wind-electric machines first appeared in Denmark and the United States around 1890. The development of a utility-scale system was first undertaken in Russia in 1931 with the 100 kilowatt Balaclava wind generator on the shore of the Caspian Sea. Operating for about two years, it generated a cumulative 200,000 kWh of electricity. During the next few decades, experimental wind-power machines were built in the United States, Denmark, France, Netherlands, Germany, and Great Britaln.
Despite these efforts to "modernize" wind energy use, wind mills were eventually retired from active service and preserved only as tourist sites. A principal reason for their demise was the invention of the steam engine, which had to be powered by heat--and which thus created a huge new market for coal. The steam engine was soon joined by a plethora of other coal- and oil- driven machines. Wind-powered machines went into a gradual decline, first in Europe and then in North America. In 1895, there were still some 30,000 windmills operating in Germany, providing the equivalent of 87 megawatts of power, but this amounted to only 1.8 percent of the country's total power requirements--compared with 78 percent provided by steam engines.
Moving into the 20th...