Wind power, a historical perspective

For those who think of wind turbines as an unwelcome modern addition to the landscape, I thought it would be a good idea to share a few paragraphs from an interesting account of their history I've just found, and reproduce some of the drawings from it.

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

More than 900 years ago, medieval Europe became the first large civilization 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.

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.

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.



Resilience, 21 October 2009

So the number of windmills in the past was far greater than the number of wind turbines proposed now. Perhaps the most dense concentration of windmills was in Zaanstat, just north of Amsterdam. The following account, contemporary map and painting by Laurens Oomhein in 1756 are from Canon van de Zaanstreek.

In 1729, a new tax register for wind lease was set up, in which 635 mills were recorded: 245 sawmills, 160 oil mills, 61 hulling mills, 38 paper mills and many other mills, which all produced what could be manufactured with millstones and pistils. The mill and shipbuilding industries started all sorts of ancillary businesses such as huge mill factories, forges, rope-makers, compass makers, while the thriving whaling contributed much to the prosperity of the region. All this in turn led to an even stronger growth of the population.



To put things into a modern perspective, the largest windfarm in Wales, Gwynt y Môr, will have only 160 turbines. And even the huge Rhiannon windfarm proposed just north of Ynys Môn is likely to have between 145 and 440 turbines, depending on how big they are.

The only real difference (apart from wind turbines looking rather more elegant, although that is a matter of opinion, of course) is that modern wind turbines produce electricity rather than direct mechanical power ... but they do produce rather a lot of it. At 2.2GW, and even allowing for a pessimistic capacity factor of 25%, the Rhiannon windfarm alone (which is only the first of three windfarms in the zone) will produce more electricity in an average year than Wylfa A did.

Wylfa A

Installed capacity ... 980 MW
Capacity factor ... 56% (ref)
Average production = 0.98 GW x 24 hours x 365 days x 56% = 4,807 GWh/yr


Installed capacity ... 2.2 GW
Capacity factor ... 25%
Average production = 2.2 GW x 24 hours x 365 days x 25% = 4,818 GWh/yr

Capacity factor ... 35%
Average production = 2.2 GW x 24 hours x 365 days x 35% = 6,745 GWh/yr

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Anonymous said...

You're flogging a dead horse. No matter whether you call them windmills or wind turbines they're destroying Wales and are completely useless.

Anonymous said...

All the windmills were so given up when a power source more reliable came along, we need reliable energy to day and that is one thing wind turbines can not give us

MH said...

So, on average, one windfarm off the coast of Môn will generate more electricity in a year than Wylfa did, yet you call it "useless", 15:34.


No way of producing electricity is guaranteed to be available at any time, so every power generation source needs a back up to be available when it isn't producing, 21:19. Of course it applies to wind, but it also applies to all the other ways of generating electricity too.

As I mentioned, Wylfa's average capacity factor was only 56%. CCGT is not much better in the 60% range, but lately has fallen to 30%. Coal is at 57% now, but was in the 40% range before that. Pumped hydro is around 15%. Figures here. Natural hydro is in the 30% range.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the first public subsidy of both water and wind mills was introduced by the British into Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s. Interest free loans, grants and exemption from taxation.

It was provided to convert mills from flax to wheat milling of export to Britain and the empire. It was followed by 'the famine' as by the 1840s Ireland was configured for food exports rather than indigenous consumption. Obviously, any future famine will be a scarcity of energy. Does anyone know how much energy generated in Wales is actually exported? Presumably any 'contractual obligations' on export will be guaranteed by military intervention.
Electric Version.

Will we see the repeal of the 'Electric Laws' and some 'Trevelyan Gas' when England runs short of energy?

Anonymous said...

The amount of energy Wales is generating is falling, except for the renewables proportion that is rising. Generating more energy than we need is a sign of strength, especially if it's renewable energy. It is useful for energy security and creates some employment (not that much, admittedly, but still). We are already dependent on others for so much in Wales. Energy is one of our strengths.

If anyone is seriously suggesting that wind power is "ruining Wales", after looking at how Scotland under the SNP is turning into the wind capital of Europe or even the world, I have to conclude those people are naive or politically stunted. Almost every country in the world is developing wind and renewables. Because they work and in the long term are more secure. In fact, creating more renewable energy, including for export to neighbouring countries like England and Ireland, should be a core nationalist policy as it is in Scotland.

Wind is the most powerful renewable at the moment, but solar is maturing. We need to embrace solar and not have conservative and reactionary anti-development views holding back our progress as a nation. Wales must not be a backwater, it needs to contribute something more to the world (such as energy).

Anonymous said...

I also need to add my take on the issue of "colonialism". Wales has renewable targets set by successive Welsh Governments (and agreed by our elected National Assembly), and also has targets set by the EU. These targets are self-determined and require more turbines to go up. This isn't "colonialism", it's normal development decided upon democratically in Wales.

MH said...

To 13:23, I'm not sure that the amount of electricity we generate is falling. But if you have figures, please provide a link. I know that one reactor at Wylfa is now permanently shut down, but Pembroke is now producing, and SevernPower is relatively new. The big reduction will be the eventual closure of Aberthaw ... and not before time, as coal is just about the worst way of generating electricity. But to balance that, there are a number of proposals for new gas-fired generation, and one or two for biomass.

As for jobs, there's an article about the new London Array here with details of the 90 long-term maintenance jobs it will create at Ramsgate. That's only for 630MW of installed capacity. The Rhiannon windfarm is very much bigger than that. It will have an installed capacity of 2,200MW, and it is only the first of three windfarms in the Round 3 Irish Sea zone.

I agree that solar PV is becoming more significant, however I believe the real future is not so much in solar farms but in building-integrated PV. I'm very disappointed at the Welsh Government abandoning the 40% CO2 reduction target in the new building regulations, and going for a pathetic 8% instead, see here. A major potential boost to PV has been lost.

But the biggest thing we should be doing, but are not yet doing, is tidal range. The initial costs of constructing the sea walls are very high, but after that cost has been amortized (say over 25 or 30 years) we will be sitting on a goldmine.

Cibwr said...

The many of the more vociferous anti wind power people seem to use on very dodgy stats, such as suggesting that they have a negative impact on electricity generating. It is true we can't use them for 100% of our generational capacity but there is some very interesting work being done with energy storage that will increase their usefulness as part of a good energy mix. PV is a bit of a no brainer, I really can't see why its not a requirement for all new buildings to incorporate it.

Anonymous said...

MH look at the Welsh energy stats published by Welsh Govt, this year's was the first edition.

MH said...

Thanks. Just googled it, and the link is here.

Anonymous said...

"Of course, the first public subsidy of both water and wind mills was introduced by the British into Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s. Interest free loans, grants and exemption from taxation."

Much more relevant is the situation today, not hundreds of years ago. The Irish are pushing for an energy connection to the UK (through Wales) to export and import energy (mostly renewable). The Irish are actually becoming more closely involved with the UK in several ways, but on their own terms. Wales needs to position itself as a confident energy powerhouse as Scotland is doing.

MH said...

I've just realized that I wrote, but forgot to post, this comment in answer to 09:09. It should have been part of my 14:54 comment:

I know a little about the "famine" being mainly about Irish food produce being exported to Britain, but I'd like to know more about the water- and windmill subsidy you mentioned, 09:09. Do you have any links?

As to how much electricity Wales exports, it's hard to be precise because of new power stations like Pembroke coming online and one reactor at Wylfa now shut down, but the 2011 figures (from this document) are that we produced 27 TWh, exported 4 TWh and consumed 18 TWh. So we are an exporter, but we're not producing vastly more than we consume.

However, even though we are a net exporter of electricity, domestic electricity prices in Wales are higher than in England. If anyone wants to do a quick check on this site, entering the same parameters, the annual bill is about £30 a year more expensive in South Wales, and about £60 more expensive in north Wales than in England. This is due to National Grid's pricing structure, which is based on distance away from centre of population rather than distance away from sources of production. It's grossly unfair, but it's been this way for years. By any rational measure, people in Wales should be paying less for electricity than people in England. Setting up a Welsh national grid would help, but will require investment because there is currently no grid linkage between north and south ... at present, the links all go through England.


The generation figures in the link are the same as the WG's document.


The project that 09:22 has just referred to is Greenwire. There's a BBC report about it here and their website is here. It's a good project in more ways than one.

In size, it's bigger than Rhiannon (3 GW as opposed to 2.2 GW), but because the turbines are on land, the cost of both construction and maintenance will be very much less. According to this report from 2011 (pages vi & vii) offshore wind is £2900-3200/kW but onshore wind is £1350-1450/kW ... less than half the capital cost. It also shows that the Irish don't have many qualms about wind turbines "ruining" their landscape.

Another positive for Wales is the two proposed interconnectors. Instead of Wales being at the "end" of two branches of the UK national grid, Wales will become the centre of a British/Irish grid. This can only help with the pricing structure for electricity.

Finally the advantage of a bigger grid is that the problem of intermittency is reduced. If the wind isn't blowing much in Wales, it might well be blowing in Ireland (or vice-versa) and if it isn't blowing much in Wales or Ireland, it might well be blowing in Scotland.

Anonymous said...

Now this is interesting. I posted a comment here, yet it has disappeared.

Nothing offensive, nothing controversial. Just pointing out that for a sovereign Welsh government with the power to issue its own currency, the need for considerable infrastructure investment in Wales (like creating north-south grid and rail links) could provide an economic boon for a newly independent Wales.

Very strange. Lets see if this comment makes the grade.

Anonymous said...

I saw that comment and thought it was trolling. Not sure why it disappeared though. I thought it was someone being provocative because you called for an independent Wales to print money and pay for infrastructure projects with it. I don't want to be unkind (and don't know what MHs editorial policy is) but printing money is really not the grounds on which we'll ever become independent. There are countries in Europe already trying to become independent like Scotland and Catalonia, neither of them are talking about printing money. We need to live in the real world, but again i'm not sure what MH's comments policy is.

Anonymous said...

I'm baffled. The vast majority of sovereign countries issue their own currencies. The crisis in Europe has shown it's important. I think we should be discussing it

Anonymous said...

I mean, how can you go on about independence being important in order to 'control the economic levers' and then insist on excluding from the conversation THE most important lever of all?

MH said...

I deleted the comment for three reasons: it was irrelevant to this post, completely mad, and you'd already said the same thing elsewhere. Your latest comments aren't quite as mad, but that's because you haven't repeated what you said before. Be careful not to.

MH said...

You won't get anywhere by bombarding me with complaints, Anon. I've invited you to make your point on this thread, which is where you started and is my opinion the most relevant place for it.

Anonymous said...

In reply to the first part of MH 13:20. The legislation was the Public Works (Ireland) Act 1831. It was to "Extend and Promote Public Works in Ireland" but it did it by means of allowing landowners to spend money on 'public works' on their estates and exempt them from payment of a number liabilities. Railways and canals were outside the remit of this, requiring a specific Act. Many parts of Ireland public works included conversion or construction of mills for 'cash crops' like grain for export, and converting small field systems to bigger field agriculture to feed the growing (tax free export to the British mainland) profitability of mills. It was successful for a while in that 'the labouring classes' were employed on a cash rather than subsistence basis. The 1831 Act also allowed landowners to build up public debt on the basis of future earnings. When 'the famine' struck in 1846, it's effect was magnified as the local population, now redundant cash earners could not afford to purchase their home grown milled grain. The argument (and the reason given for military outposts in mill towns during the famine) was not to make people starve but to maintain payment of public debt, by exporting produce. This does not fit with the British version of events that it was all down to 'the blight' and it is very much a raw nerve in Irish history in that it was the native aristocracy which played a role in starvation. Ireland was a big exporter of food, mainly milled grain, during the famine.

It's an important 'historical perspective', hence my question about how much energy Wales exports.
My second question is - Why do people who live closest to wind turbines pay most for their electricity?

Anonymous said...

Anon 08:59- what you're saying is historically interesting, definitely, but how is the Irish famine actually related to energy today? I don't see any link at all. One problem is that although we're talking about energy "exports", and we correctly identify energy transmitted from generating stations in Wales to customers outside Wales as "exports", they aren't really exports in the technical sense, like food or other produce would be. The UK has a "national grid" covering Wales, England and Scotland, and pricing is applied to the grid as a whole. The political nations within the national grid aren't recognised in any way, it's just a case of generating stations and then customers (domestic and industrial). I don't have any answers on how the nations can be delineated within the UK grid, but whatever happens with Scotland after independence will be instructive.

I would like to see MH answer your second question, but my caution is that wind turbines and other plants feed into the grid as a whole. If you live near a wind farm you're not necessarily using the energy from that farm every day. It is spread out into the grid at transmission stations and sub-stations, and you're also using normal "baseload" power.

MH said...

Thanks for the answer, 08:59. It is "filed away for future reference" somewhere in the dim recesses of my mind as part of "the way a colonial economy works".

I hope the previous links by 17:05 and myself answered your question about how much electricity Wales exports.


Your second question is based on the assumption that people who live closest to wind turbines pay most for their electricity. I'm not sure whether that assumption is valid. But if you can support it, please do.

However, I can see that it might be indirectly true. As I said before, the price domestic customers pay for electricity is in part determined by the financial charging structure of the UK National Grid, based on distance way from centre of population rather than distance away from where the electricity fed into it is produced. Wind turbines tend to be located in the peripheral areas of Britain; people in the peripheral areas pay more. But they pay more because they are on the periphery, not because they are close to wind turbines.


10:17 makes a point about whether electricity is an export. The point he (for I'm guessing his initials are GE) makes about the grid is valid. But the way things work is to meter how much electricity is put into the grid and meter how much is taken out of the grid. That used to be quite easy when electricity was only put into the grid by power stations, but technology means that everybody can now feed electricity into the grid (and get paid for it by feed-in tariffs) as well as consume electricity from the grid in the traditional way.

As well as simply adding up what is put into the grid and subtracting what is taken out (making allowances for grid losses, of course) it is possible to measure electricity produced on a geographical basis by measuring what passes (one way or the other) through a number of node points in the grid. Interconnectors are an obvious example, but as the map in this post shows, the total electricity "flow" between Wales and England passes through just four or five nodal points. So it would not be difficult to precisely measure the net "flow" between Wales and England if we needed to. It's just that it isn't politically or commercially necessary to do it now.

MH said...

Returning to the subject of wind turbines and the financial implications for those who live close to them, I would say that the answer is not to address this through the mechanism of the price paid for electricity. I would look to handle it in different ways. Here are some suggestions:

- that in return for being granted planning permission, the windfarm operator makes financial contributions to the community in a manner similar to Section 106 agreements (this already happen in some cases, Vatenfall's Pen y Cymoedd project has a community fund worth £1.8m a year).

- that a windfarm operator should pay higher non-domestic rates for wind turbines, and that this extra money should be retained within the local community rather than centrally pooled and redistributed, as is the case with other NDRs

- that it should be a legal requirement for the local community to itself own a percentage of any windfarm. In Denmark, this is 20%, as I mentioned here.

One clever way of incentivizing local community ownership would be to offer the equivalent of small business rates relief to wind turbines owned by the community. So, as an example, in a development of 10 turbines, a minimum of 2 would be owned by the local community with the remainder owned by the developer. The developer would pay full rates for their 8 turbines, but the community would get small business rates relief on theirs. However the developer could still operate the whole windfarm, but do so on behalf of the local community in respect of the ones they own.

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