July 5, 2009


So last night after an unsuccessful attempt at going to sleep, I sat up for a couple of hours doing research on wind turbines. Inspired by our trip through the Maple Ridge Wind Farm north of us, I decided to learn all I could about the pros and cons of wind farms, their effectiveness on the environment and the benefits and detriments associated with their existence.

It’s no secret to just about anyone that we need to find a source (or sources) of clean, renewable energy. We have been hearing that song and dance since the mid 1970s when the speed limit was forced down to 55 because we were going to run out of oil by 1980. Of course, we found more oil and the speed limit went back up and people became über-dependent on fossil fuels once again. Emissions from coal burning plants and waste from nuclear facilities (amongst many other things) are nasty to the environment; harnessing the power of the wind and the sun are renewable, clean ways of providing some of the power that we need to fuel our increasingly electric-hungry society.

Here’s the thing with wind farms. There are many people in favour of them, as long as they are somewhere else. Naturally wind farms have to be located where it’s windy, after all, something needs to turn the turbines which generates the electricity that is contributed to that big grid1 thing that we have. Unfortunately, the windier places are up on top of hills where it tends to be more scenic and people don’t like the way the turbines look as they dot these areas.

One of the concerns with the Maple Ridge Wind Farm was the chemicals used to control dust during the construction phase of the project. This is unfortunate. If you’re building an environmentally-friendly, renewable, ‘green’ energy source then you probably should do it as environmentally-friendly/’green’ as possible, yes?

Opponents of the wind farm project tout the benefits of nuclear power and how there is a substantial increase in the number of kilowatts generated per square foot used with a nuclear facility versus a wind farm. But what do we do with the nuclear waste? Burying it deep into the earth is not a solution; the “out of sight, out of mind” approach doesn’t make the problem go away. I grew up not that far from a site with three nuclear reactors and I watched the cooling tower of the third be built during my teenage years. I heard the sirens (for drills) and I read all the posters on how we were suppose to save ourselves should a catastrophe occur. Sorry, but I didn’t feel any safer knowing that I could be crammed down into the basement of my high school with 700 other students as the fireball incinerated the school above us. It just wasn’t my idea of a good time. Life comes with risk, I’ll give you that, but mass annihilation shouldn’t be one of them.

As I read more and more about the technology used and the mechanics and engineering involved with the construction of Maple Ridge, and other wind farms throughout the United States, the civil engineer in me kicked in. I have lamented before that I have a really big need to make a contribution to society to leave the world better than the way it was when I got here. While I enjoy what I do for a living now, I don’t feel that what I do really improves anything for anyone. To _maintain_ is a waste of talent, to _improve_ is where one really soars.

I sometimes wonder if I started figuring all this stuff out too late in life. I have read about folks that got a PhD at age 55 or started a completely new career after retiring from their first at 62. While I suspect that perhaps lottery winnings were involved, I can’t say that I have figured out how they did it.

Perhaps that should be the first step.

1 Contrary to popular belief, the United States doesn’t really have a power grid, but rather a bunch of interconnected networks that are dependent on one another. If it were a true grid, then a major line failure wouldn’t bring the entire system down as it has in the past (1965, 2003, etc).