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So-called Progress that Goes Backwards

June 16, 2015

Sailing ships were a thing of beauty.

Clipper Ships forged ties with the orient, but are merely recollections in paintings.

The last serious commercial use of sailing ships in 1938 was in the grain trade, from Europe to Australia and back again, 14,000 miles of dangerous, grueling work by the seamen who manned the ships.

One of the last of these voyages was described in Grain Race, a true story by a crew member of a barque carrying grain.

Photo from Grain Race by Alan Villiers

Photo from Grain Race by Alan Villiers

Conditions on sailing ships were unimaginably bad for those living today.

It was not uncommon for crewmen to climb ratlines to 100 feet or more above the deck of a ship rolling 10 or 15 degrees, then, swaying back and forth above the deck and ocean, with sleet hurled relentlessly into their faces, using bare and freezing hands to haul in sails to slow a ship struggling in gale force winds.

Even on calmer days, there was always danger lurking with every step. Certainly there was constant backbreaking work. Sea shanties were sung by the crew so they could work in unison as they bent over, with feet braced against the deck, to haul in lines.

From Grain Race, By Alan Villiers

From Grain Race, By Alan Villiers

They sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and around Cape Horn, where the tides, seas and wind were vicious. Nearly 80 years later, my trip around Cape Horn in a comfortable cruise ship was uneventful. Horn is an Island 80 miles south of Ushuaia, Argentina, but is in Chilean waters.

Picture by D. Dears of Cape Horn, Horn Island, Chile

Picture by D. Dears of Cape Horn, Horn Island, Chile

The advent of steam, using coal was a godsend to the average crewman.

Sail gave way to coal and steam, and later to gas turbines and natural gas.

This was progress. It made life easier and safer for those who sailed the ships, and far more efficient and less costly for moving goods quickly around the world. No one, except those with fantasies of the glory of sail, regretted moving forward from the age of sail.

We now have a parallel fantasy of using wind for generating electricity which is turning the clock backwards.

The romantic history of the West is dotted with windmills, pumping water and serving the people as they developed farms and communities. But they were abandoned when electric motors could do the job better. The Brush windmill in Cleveland, in 1888, that generated electricity was abandoned because it was inefficient.

Today, wind turbans cost more to install than building a natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plant.

  • A 1.5 MW wind turbine costs $1,400 per KW to install.
  • A NGCC power plant costs $1,100 per KW to build.

In addition, the monster sized windmills that scar the landscape are inefficient.

It requires 2,000 wind turbines rated 1.5 MW to equal the same output as does a single nuclear power plant rated 1,000 MW. (Using the formula: kWh output = Nameplate rating * capacity factor * hours in a year)

  • The nuclear power plant requires an area of less than 0.5 square miles.
  • The 2,000 wind turbines require an area of 400 square miles. (At spacing = 10 * rotor diameter)

While the open space around the turbines may be usable for farming or ranching, virtually all other uses are excluded. The economic value of the land is therefore reduced. For example, it can’t be sold for building homes, or commercial activities.

There can be little question that wind is far less efficient in land utilization than nuclear.

The same is true for natural gas and coal-fired power plants, though the equivalent area required by the wind turbines is 220 sq. miles rather than 400. (Using an NGCC capacity factor of 0.6 compared with 0.9 for a nuclear power plant))

Furthermore, it costs more to generate electricity with wind turbines than with either NGCC or coal-fired power plants.

The cost of generating electricity is:

  • NGCC = 5 cents/kWh
  • Coal-fired = 6 cents/kWh
  • Wind = 11 cents/kWh

Even if the cost of wind generated electricity can be reduced, it will still cost more than the electricity produced by NGCC or coal-fired power plants.

There is a great deal of misinformation about the cost of generating electricity from wind, but even the EIA (a U.S. government agency), a supporter of renewables, says the cost of wind generated electricity is more than the cost when using NGCC power plants.

Wind is also unreliable. It doesn’t generate electricity when the wind stops blowing.

This results in additional costs. Backup power is the most obvious. The cost of storage is also an additional cost as storage is added to the grid.

Sailing ships were a thing of beauty, but they were slow and unreliable. They were also death traps for the sailors who manned them.

Fossil fuels allowed us to move beyond sailing ships, with steam and gas turbines.

We wouldn’t go backwards and return to using sailing ships.

So why are we going backwards by trying to use inefficient, costly and unreliable wind to generate electricity?

* * * * * *


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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Kross permalink
    June 16, 2015 10:49 am


    I like your article on commercial sailing and it’s replacement by coal fired steam. Over time coal was replaced by “Bunker Oil”, then “Heavy Fuel Oil” in the steam boilers and now all the steam propulsion systems have been replaced by slow speed diesel engines burning Heavy Fuel Oil. Gas turbines burning distillate fuels were installed on a few cruise ships in the 90’s and today there are a handful of gas turbines running on LNG but today, 99% of large tankers, bulk carriers and container ships are powered by a single turbo charged diesel engine with 6+ cylinders, each cylinder rated at 11,600 hp. The engine runs between 36 and 90 RPM and is directly connected to the prop without a gearbox; start the engine and the ship moves. Properly operated and maintained ships with these engines recover about 50% of the energy contained in the Heavy Fuel Oil. They are the most efficient ships ever built.

    • June 16, 2015 10:57 am

      I failed to mention diesel, which I should have. You are correct. Diesel is the primary propulsion plant today.
      Having been the head of the engineering department on board ship during my stint in the Navy, I seem to remember it first. Similarly, I followed the use of GE gas turbines in the Navy, so I tend to think of them next.
      But diesel is now the preferred power plant. I might add that, from what I have seen, it’s mostly diesel-electric, though I’m not sure of that.
      Every chance I get I visit the engine room on board ships. The use of pods, seems to me to have been an advancement, at least on cruise ships.
      I’m looking forward to see whether LNG becomes the preferred fuel. Do you have any thoughts on that?

  2. Neil E. Jones permalink
    June 16, 2015 1:29 pm


    Another great piece. Remember when we were plebes and Alan Villiers came to the Academy and gave a talk about his “going to sea?” He was an inspiring guy. I have a copy of Grain Race in my office.

    On a day In late August or early Sept ’57, I was third in MorMac’s BRAZIL and on the forenoon watch of our second day out from Buenos Aires north bound for Santos when we met the old square rigger PAMIR. I later learned she was inbound for BA to load bulk barley. As she came over the horizon she was fine on our starboard bow. I did a quick maneuvering board plot, arranged to pass her about a half mile off to starboard, then made an announcement on the PA so our passengers could have a look. Except for a few puffy cumulus, the sky was clear and wind was from the NE about 25/30, enough to churn-up pretty white caps on the dark blue sea. It was a beautiful sight, and it was PAMIR’S final voyage. On her return to Europe she went down in a hurricane near the Azores.


    • June 16, 2015 2:00 pm

      Great story. I hadn’t heard this sea story before. Square riggers were beautiful ships. In 1976, I was in Bermuda and saw a great many during the Tall Ships events as they prepared to sail for New York City.
      I also have a copy of Grain Race, though it’s getting a little dog eared.
      Great to hear from you.

  3. June 16, 2015 4:59 pm

    “It requires 2,000 wind turbines rated 1.5 MW to equal the same output as does a single nuclear power plant rated 1,000 MW.” — But those 2,000 wind turbines would provide virtually NO firm capacity, and therefore require equivalent co-existing RELIABLE generation from conventional sources (typically natural gas) — an obvious nonsensical redundancy.

    • June 16, 2015 5:17 pm

      You are absolutely correct. Thanks for pointing that out.

  4. James Burkes permalink
    June 17, 2015 8:51 am

    Whenever I read articles like this, I can’t help but relate this anecdote. I remember my Mom telling me how when they would visit her grandfather’s farm in what was then rural New Jersey. They had windmill that would pump water from the well into a cistern, and a hand pump to bring water up from that into buckets and tubs. The house had no indoor plumbing. You got a bath once a week in cold water, clothes washed maybe every other week. Her grandmother wore herself out hauling water in the buckets. The kids (and grandkids) helped hall the tubs (try carrying a 30-gallon partially-filled tub of water, it ain’t easy). Her grandfather lived in constant worry that the cistern would run dry if there wasn’t enough wind. In cold weather you had to make sure to drain the hand pump so it would not freeze up.

    So when rural electrification came in the first thing they did was tear down their windmill and put in an electric pump. Sure, they had a utility bill to pay every month but never worried again about having enough water, freed forever from any reliance on the capricious natural phenomenon of wind power for a basic necessity of life. When one of the grandkids (my Uncle) was older and became a pipefitter tradesman he helped install indoor plumbing and my Mom’s grandmother had running water in the house, something she thought she would never see, but today we take for granted. No more backbreaking work hauling water. They both lived long, healthy lives, which I cannot help think was due in part to that faithful servant, a simple electric water pump.

    • June 17, 2015 8:58 am

      Great comment. Thanks for sharing. Electrification saved millions of lives. The lowly electric motor replaced many backbreaking or unsafe mechanical applications, from wind driven pumps to belt and pulley drives in workshops everywhere.

  5. Don permalink
    June 17, 2015 7:20 pm

    Great article and also lots of good comments from others.
    Makes me wonder what are they thinking when they want to ban fossil fuels. Are they naïve or just badly uninformed with no knowledge of history and how fossil fuels changed our li.ves for the better.
    I may have said this before, my rule is that our leaders need to live and abide by the regulations and laws for five years before applying to the populace. That would end the nonsense. Instead they exempt themselves. Who has the largest carbon footprint in the USA?
    The article and great comments puts the green energy agenda in a foolish light.

    • June 17, 2015 8:08 pm

      Don: Thanks for your comments. I couldn’t agree more that legislators should live under their rules before the rules become law.

  6. June 21, 2015 8:44 am

    I just saw a reference to this post through NH Wind Watch Email.

    On your comment about the space needed for 2,000 turbines vs. a single nuke, I show that visually in a presentation I wrote about wind power in New Hampshire. On slide 11 I have a Google Earth view of NH’s Groton Wind project, only 25 turbines, but it’s a start. In a corner I have an image at the same scale that’s too small to see any detail. On the next slide I have that image filling the slide and it’s obvious it’s the Seabrook nuclear plant

    See if you’re interested.


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