One wave turbine can power 1,000 homes.
Softly turning in the rose-hued sky, the dozens of wind turbines in Suisun Bay, California looked like long-legged mechanical birds. It was like a Pink Floyd album cover come to life.
I’ve always loved wind turbines. They make me feel like the human race isn’t on a high-speed, one-way crash course to annihilation. But people who live near them generally don’t see them the same way as I did while driving through the hills of northern California.
The biggest issue with them is aesthetic. From million-dollar developments in New England to a pristine coastal county in Taiwan, seaside residents often complain that turbines spoil their view. Manufacturers generally build scores of turbines clumped together; some tower 620 feet high, which is taller than the Washington monument.
Windmill critics also point out that the low-frequency noise can cause depression and at least 246 other health issues (the science suggests otherwise) and that turbines kill golden eagles and other species of birds.
None other than US president and real estate developer Donald Trump?—?who’s contradicted himself on wind energy?—?lobbied UK politician Nigel Farage in November to block construction of a wind farm near Trump’s Scottish golf resort. Trump began trying to block the wind energy project in 2008, saying the turbines would blight the resort’s view and destroy Scotland’s natural beauty and ruin its tourism industry. When he lost that fight in a UK ruling in 2015, Trump’s company released this statement:
“History will judge those involved unfavorably and the outcome demonstrates the foolish, small-minded and parochial mentality which dominates the current Scottish Government’s dangerous experiment with wind energy.”
Wind turbines provide clean energy, and lots of it?—?just one in Hong Kong powers up to 250 households?—?but they’re unpredictable. If the wind doesn’t blow, they don’t spin.
It’s promising, then, that Scotland is pioneering another type of clean turbine technology that harnesses ocean currents and waves. It’s called tidal energy. On Nov. 15, the world’s most ambitious tidal project generated electricity for the first time in Pentland Firth, the narrow sea channel that separates Scotland from the Orkney Islands.
This type of turbine is moored on the ocean floor, someplace where the current is strong, like the firth. Unlike wind, tides are predictable, so we know ahead of time how much energy the turbine is going to generate, which is useful when you’re building something very expensive.
And there’s a lot of energy out there. Pentland Firth’s tides are some of the fastest moving in the world. Oxford University researchers say tides could one day power half of Scotland. With the potential to generate 1.9 gigawatts (1.9 billion watts), they could power Doc Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean in “Back to the Future” and still have a shit-ton of watts left over for making toast and playing “Halo.”
Another type of turbine, the wave turbine is fastened beneath a float, and can be towed in and out of narrow sea channels where it can generate power from waves. One wave turbine can generate enough power for 1,000 households. Two such turbines, in the channel between two of the Shetland Islands northeast of the Orkneys, first delivered electricity to the power grid in August.
Because they’re underwater, both kinds of sea-powered turbines create far less visual pollution than hulking wind turbines.
Tidal energy also affects the environment, though. Scientists are concerned about the heat the turbines generate, which could reduce the ocean’s ability to store oxygen. They generate noise pollution underwater, though we won’t hear it. And they could make tiny changes to tidal flows, which won’t matter to us, but might matter to migrating seabirds and fish. Then there’s the obvious danger of fish, dolphins and whales swimming into the blades.
It’s likely that both wind and tidal power will be a part of our clean energy toolset in the future. The world’s ocean tides contain 3,000 gigawatts of potential power-generating capacity, and scientists think we can harness between 120 and 400 gigawatts of that.
For someone who looks out their window at 70 wind turbines, while worrying what the low-frequency noise is doing to their children, tidal energy looks pretty darn good. Donald Trump might even approve.