Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Hope is the thing with blades

H. G. Wells supposedly said, “Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future.”

Yep, Herbert George, I know where you’re coming from. And while I’m definitely a fan of bicycles, for energy as well as aesthetic reasons[1], there’s a different human construct that quickens my pulse, makes my emotions well up, and powers my conviction that we will find and implement the solutions needed to deal with the looming twin horrors of peak oil and global warming. With all due respect and apologies to both Ms. Dickinson and Mr. Allen[2], for me, hope is the thing with blades.

Yes, I’m talking about wind turbines.

I’ve struggled for some time to figure out why wind turbines, as opposed to solar panels or hydroelectric dams or something else “green”, have this unique and pronounced effect on me. I had a minor epiphany though, and I think it relates to how we all view energy challenges and proposed solutions. My wife and I were on a recent trip to PA to visit our nieces, when we passed a new wind farm being constructed near Cohocton, NY, about 60 miles south of Rochester, very close to Route 390. This wind farm, when complete, will have 50 turbines scattered about several hills, and will definitely provide me with some terrific photographic subject matter.

When I last saw these turbines, none were in service, and most didn’t even have the blades attached yet; they were nothing more than immense towers, each sporting a bus-size nacelle. But even in that nascent state their sheer size is something to behold. It’s not just the immensity of the structures. I’ve walked through the proverbial concrete canyons of Manhattan many times, for example, visited the Eiffel Tower, the Washington Monument, stood before a 1.2 million pound steam locomotive, etc., and as impressive as all those are in their own way, none of them had the visceral impact of turbines.

And that’s the part I finally figured out on thew recent drive past Cohocton, purely by chance. A few days (weeks?) earlier I had been channel surfing and I stumbled upon one of my favorite movies, Apollo 13, and the spectacular launch sequence where Marilyn Lovell watches the rocket carrying her husband take off. This requires a bit of explanation, so please bear with me.

My emotional connection to the real world events of April 1970 grows out of two facts.

First, I was about as much of a space and NASA geek as you could imagine any 12-year old being. My friends and I had scrap books of magazine and newspaper clippings related to various missions, and we made a point of memorizing practically any statistic about the rockets, capsules, launch facilities, and crews that we could get our hands on. We knew the size, weight, composition, and operating characteristics of practically every part of every Apollo mission. (We knew far less about Gemini and Mercury, as those were ancient history as far as we were concerned. Ah, youth.)

I also had a science teacher at the time, in Thomas Alva Edison School in Union City, NJ, who was just as big a space geek as my friends and I, and covered one wall in his classroom with related newspaper clippings.

So, when Houston discovered they “had a problem”, for all the space geeks it was a horrible, personal event.

Second, at that time, I was also going through a genuine horrible, personal experience; my father was just a month away from dying of cancer, after a two-year illness that included four operations and more visits to the hospital with my mother than I would care to estimate.

Put another way, even though I didn’t have the sophistication or vocabulary to express it at the time, I was in no damn mood to let the universe win. Not on the physics front, not on the engineering front, and sure as hell not on the medical front. When I see wind turbines, time collapses and events merge, and I’m overcome with the conviction that this time, as they did with Apollo 13, the good guys will find a way to win, no matter how many improbable but workable miracles the “steely-eyed missile men” had to invent along the way.

For me, there is no better symbol of our defiance of long odds, our determination to find a way to deal with both peak oil and global warming, than an array of wind turbines, their elegant, spinning blades reaching far into the wind, turning kinetic energy into moving electrons.

[1] I think bicycles are utterly fascinating machines. There’s so little to one–a few pipes and cables and wire spokes and little else–that you can all but see the forces in play as the rider mindlessly pedals and the gears and chain transfer that energy to the rear wheel and the entire vehicle. It’s not magic, but it’s pretty damn close.

[2] Emily Dickinson said, of course, that “hope is the thing with feathers.” Woody Allen said, “Hope is not the thing with feathers. The thing with feathers has turned out be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich.”

2 comments to Hope is the thing with blades

  • chapter1

    I just had to drop a note that this is a fan-frigging-tastic post. Its always a pleasure
    when I read something that says what I believe so much better than I could have. I share
    none of Lou’s specific associations with technology, but I’ve also long seen wind turbines
    as both an elegant engineering solution, and a symbol of how our society can solve problems.
    I get a similar reaction from seeing a Prius and, yes, a bicycle.

  • Lou

    Thanks. I try not to front-page things that personal, for all the obvious reasons, but I decided to make an exception in this case. I’ve been pondering for some time why I had such a strong reaction to turbines, and it hit me like a thunderbolt when Mrs. Lou and I were driving by that wind farm in Cohocton.

    Now if I can figure out why I’m terrified of cotton candy, I’ll REALLY make some progress…