Saturday, 31 July 2010

Stick 'Em With Windmills

The humourist Scott Adams(*) of Dilbert fame illustrated that people tend to see the solution to any problem in terms of their favourite technique, the one they have a special investment in. When Dilbert's office hired a porcupine as a consultant it would unhestitatingly recommend:

"We must stick them with quills! It's the only way!"

The observation is sharp. Ask a school teacher what to do and it will invariably work its way back upstream to how children ought to be educated. A priest will tell you to pray. An accountant, a good one, will venture no opinion until she has managed to put a model in to a spreadsheet.

Little Richard honestly believed there was no problem which could not be solved by dancing, which is the odd-man-out as he is primarily thought of as a rock'n'roller rather than a hoofer. He probably meant "Playing some rock'n'roll loudly and dancing to it until the problem goes away of its own accord". Some truth in that too; a great number of problems are best dealt with by doing nothing, although that's disastrous in a smaller proportion of cases. Wisdom lies in knowing when to do nothing, when to do something, and what that thing ought to be to avoid making the situation worse than if you'd done nothing in the first place.

If an advisor is counselling you against their own best techniques it goes against this powerful human grain. You should at least listen, then, when a person doesn't suggest that a problem can be solved by applying generous amounts of money to their profession.

"I was a marine engineer for 43 years."

It is reasonable to assume The Filthy Engineer knows what he's talking about when he says that there is something hideously wrong with the calculations for what it will cost to maintain wind farms at sea, compared to the energy they will generate.

Also, he's prepared to wade through the documents to get to the heart of the ignorance, for which we should all be thankful. Now, if only we can get people in authority to take notice of his summary.


(*) Scott Adams: the strip is on page 103 of "How to Build a Better Life By Stealing Office Supplies", which is nineteen years old now. If you register with Amazon you can use the Look Inside feature to see it (again).

It became one of the best known workings of the theme "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail".


Submariner said...

Very well said, Mrs Raft. The arch windmill-sticker is of course the man somewhat disastrously made energy secretary, Chris Huhne. Christopher Booker had a good go at him here: (Thanks to the Devil for highlighting this at )

I am not against renewables and low-carbon energy, especially nuclear, but wind power is probably the worst as it is so unreliable. Hydroelectric and tidal barrages may well have a role to play, but wind power is for the birds.

The Filthy Engineer said...

Thanks for the link. I'm just in the process of debunking the maintenance costs. However the costs are not really mentioned in any publication. We are being sold a concept that is totally flawed.

All Seeing Eye said...

It's true that to a man with a chainsaw, every problem looks like lots of fun. I must admit I did once trial an "if in doubt do nothing and see what happens" approach, but the people I owed money to didn't like it.

Good link, I should look it at FE's more often. My bad.

I do enjoy how nuclear power can't possibly be subsidised because it is old established tech, but wind power must be because it is new, innovative and cutting edge (pun intended).

Woman on a Raft said...

Thank you for that lovely link, AS Eye. If anyone has not seen it, treat yourself. The caption is a hoot.

I look at it like this: if windmills were such a winner, and wind is free and the engineering is well-understood, why did we replace the drainage of the fens with steam, diesel and finally electric pumps? If the new windmills are that good, the very first thing they ought to be employed as is low-maintenance sentinels to save a few bob on fosil-based electricity for those pumps. They could generate their own electricity on site.

As I'm not a member of IMechE, I don't have access to their papers on the subject of windmills. There are at least 153 historical papers and 23 modern ones which seem to directly address the issues FE has raised.

This one for example, models what happens if you put a turbine in a tidal river. The argument is straightforward; with a tidal river you know it is going to switch direction reliably. Who knows when the wind will blow?

What I am also interested in is reducing oil dependency for the simple political reason that I can't bear being pushed round by the likes of Saudi Arabia. However, I can't see that fretting about dribbly little bits fuel in a domestic context are anything more than a nostalgia for the command economy of WWII. I don't believe that me slicing up irreparable bicycle inner tubes to re-use as knicker elastic will defeat Bin Laden.

Nick Drew said...

your link to FE has done me a service, Mrs Raft - thank you kindly

Woman on a Raft said...

I like FE becasue he explains things so I can understand them. I've just realized he wasn't on the blogroll. Oops. Corrected.