Did you know you can get little wind turbines to go on your house? I saw one years ago in the middle of a cemetery in the suburbs of London. It looked like a modern sculpture.
I was struck with the dichotomy of such a striking beacon of modern technology spinning silently above a series of graves each at least a hundred years old. I wondered what the ghosts who wandered the grounds at night thought of this strange contraption. I also thought it was a brilliant way for a church with a dwindling congregation to avoid paying power bills.
I later learned it was a Darrieus wind turbine, a type of vertical turbine invented in 1926 by a French aeronautical engineer. Ah the French – no wonder it’s so pretty. The windmills you see in picture books or as an ominous wind indicator in any movie with a twister are horizontal turbines. In horizontal turbines the drive shaft that generates the electricity lies horizontally, normally at the top of a very tall support pole. In a vertical turbine the support pole and drive shaft are the same thing running vertically through the centre of the blades.
By putting all the expendive stuff on th ground a vertical turbine is becomes cheaper to install, easier to maintain and they are generally better in situations where wind direction can vary (like a city churchyard). It can also do more with much less wind. They aren’t great when you’re talking commercial power production but for household use they can shine.
The Darrieus works the same way as a plane’s wing – as the wind passes over the blades it causes lift pulling the blades forward. The sweeping curve of the blade means it always has one part facing the wind and causing lift. What results is elegant ribbons of plastic or steel that make a mesmerising illusion.
Savonius wind turbines can be pretty too. These ones work on the much simpler science of ‘blow hard enough on something and it will move’ but they still have the similar advantages to other windmills. Humans have been playing with this type since the 1st Century AD so we know they’re useful.
I say let’s get the startups on this one. Iceland is already ahead of the curve with Icewind who gained attention when they used branded turbines on a bus stop to power a wifi hotspot. There are a lot of manufacturers that produce these already, but we need teams of bouncy haired disruptors to pretend they invented wind and make them sexy to the average consumer.
I’d love a future where kinetic sculptors team up with engineers to fill out parks and open spaces with incredible moving artworks that also generate energy. I know already that the idea will be immediately hijacked by advertisers – BUT for a moment let’s flirt with the utopia.
Imagine walking through a city parkland in summer, the paths lit up with the cool glow of LED lanterns as you stroll your way to an outdoor movie screening. As you walk you look up and quietly spinning above the trees is an incredible avenue of moving sculptures shining in the moonlight. They ignite a curiosity within you for both artistic and engineering endeavours, but most of all they give you relief that the power you’re consuming comes from renewable sources.
Yeah. That sounds great.