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I wrote this essay in 2009 and entered it in a contest. It got an honourable mention, but, sorry, I no longer even remember the contest name. What I wrote then still applies, although Monash University relinquished ownership some years ago, and we have removed the ugly, useless half-drums.
A sculpture graces a grassy sward atop a mountain. It is a beautiful and imposing object, drawing the eye of all who pass, and intriguing the first time visitor. The height of a four-storey building, it resembles an upside-down eggbeater, pointing at the sky. Its smooth silvery lines are somewhat spoiled by green metal half-drums attached through a post-graduate student's whim, but the grandeur, elegance and sheer presence of the basic object shrugs off this indignity.
What's it for? Why is it there? What is its story? The answer depends on whom you ask. Some answer, "It's a mistake, a failure, an object of shame that should be removed to another place, or sold for scrap. It's a piece of junk that never worked. Let's look at something more interesting..."
But my answer is different. To me, it has meaning, a message, a purpose. It's beautiful, and well, it doesn't eat anything. Why not leave it where it is? Certainly, it is a failure, and it never worked, but it isn't an object of shame. You can't learn without experimenting, and experiments can fail, or they wouldn't be experiments. It's not the remnants of a mistake, but of a learning experience. It is a tribute to a remarkable man, and even though the experiment failed, the designer didn't.
All too many years ago now, in a faraway land, there lived a little boy called Manfred. He was a lively little fellow, and his family found it hard to keep up with him. His mind was always running so quickly that his mouth couldn't keep up with it. This is why he spoke very, very fast, so fast that he sometimes ran words together, and you had to listen hard to follow him.
He had busy hands, too: hands that took a clock apart, then put it together so it ran backward, hands that could fix your sewing machine or lawn mower or bicycle, hands that never stayed still.
At school, his teachers liked his sharp intelligence and delighted in his delight with numbers, but despaired of ever getting him to keep still for more than a moment.
As a young man he went to University, to study engineering -- naturally. He was not satisfied with one qualification, but obtained two degrees, in both Mechanical and Electrical Engineering.
Then, by a stroke of great good fortune for this country, he came to Australia. By then, he was a committed environmentalist. He could see the damage our society is doing to itself, to its life support base, to the future of our children. Naturally, in his case this led to involvement in engineering solutions. He was not much interested in solar power, but the wind fascinated him.
He would explain to anyone who would listen, still speaking very, very fast but now in impeccable English, that the wind contained only about 1% of the total solar energy impinging on the earth, but that this was still a tremendous resource. And as our industrial lunacy changed the composition of the atmosphere, wind energy was only going to increase.
He wanted to be part of the effort to harness all this power, for the good of humankind, and for the delight of conquering the engineering challenges. During lunch times at work, at home while the rest of the family watched TV, at all odd moments, he was sketching wind turbines. He knew all there was to know about the field, and often debated the merits of the different types of design.
He built many propeller-type horizontal axis wind turbines. They worked all right, but this was a well-trodden path, and beset with many limitations. A horizontal axis turbine needs to be constantly steered into the wind. This is easy -- unless the wind is fluky and changeable. On the plains, on the shore, on board a ship, a propeller works well. But what about mountains, where, although the winds blow strong, they are rarely steady? A mountain has bumps and hollows in plenty. Nor is it naked. Trees deflect the wind and modify it in unpredictable ways. So, an almost imperceptible shift of the lowland breeze can translate into a wild ninety degree swing on the towering heights. And, like a sailing ship, a horizontal axis wind turbine can be destroyed in a second if the wind takes it aback.
Manfred was attracted by the clean, beautiful lines of an invention of the 1930s: the rotor devised by a man called Darrieus. The driving blade of a Darrieus rotor is a captive aeroplane wing: the cross-section is an elongated, slightly curved teardrop. Air flowing along the wing of an aeroplane creates an upward suction. The Darrieus blade is positioned vertically, so the same principle sucks it outward, away from the axis. It cannot escape, and so a rotary force is created.
An aeroplane won't fly unless wind speed along the wings is high enough. It needs to roar along the ground before it has force enough to fly. The same is true of the Darrieus. Except in a gale, the rotor needs to be spun by some other force, until the blades themselves keep the motion going.
Manfred was keen to explain that the internal combustion engine is not a self-starter either, now is it? A car needs a starter motor, and so why shouldn't a wind turbine be the same?
Darrieus rotors have worked in many places despite this handicap, but he found the standard solution to be awkward and inefficient. It was inelegant, a mongrel crossing of two tools to the detriment of both. The usual starter is the Savonius rotor. Everyone has seen small versions of these: they are the spinning ventilators atop trains and buses. Cut a cylinder in half lengthwise, and move the two halves apart by 30%, still facing each other. Attach top and bottom plates to hold them together, balance the construction on a vertical axis -- and you have a Savonius rotor, a useful device for pumping water, but too slow without considerable gearing for generating electricity.
I had seen many pictures of Darrieus rotors. All had one or two Savonius rotors attached to the axle. Typically, the big aerofoil blades were hinged, so they drooped when stationary. Come the wind, and the central Savonious rotors spun up the structure. The graceful Darrieus wings would spread and capture energy from the moving air.
"But," Manfred argued in his rapid way, "as soon as the Darrieus starts, the Savonius acts as a drag. It actually sucks energy out of the system, causes turbulence, bah!"
Being an electrical engineer, he proposed the solution that has worked for the car. Why not use a suitably sized electric motor? He came up with a beautiful design, elegant and efficient. The three big blades would drive a vertical axle, coupled through a clutch to an alternator. A wind speed meter would inform a little computer when wind strength had been sufficient during a certain length of time, and then the motor would spin up the blades. The clutch would connect the alternator as soon as the wind sped up beyond a second criterion.
Wind turbines need to be governed, so they rotate at a speed fast enough to generate electricity, but not so fast that they disintegrate. Most existing devices relied on mechanical means: an extra cost, an extra inefficiency, an extra potential cause of breakdown. Manfred found something new. The same wind speed meter and the same computer would control speed through electric output. An alternator is easy to spin if little or no electricity is being used. Turn on a device that uses power, and the alternator needs more energy to keep it turning. As he explained, "At a wind speed of seven knots, the rotor can spin with the clutch open. How fast is that? You can just hear the breeze whisper in the leaves of a tree. Ten knots, and the alternator kicks in. And after that, there are ten equal steps to 33 knots, a major storm. At each step, the computer introduces one more kilowatt of output, and this is the governor." And his blue eyes would flash with enthusiasm.
He now needed somewhere, a place to realise his dream. He needed a customer.
Moora Moora bought 618 acres of land atop Mt Toolebewong in 1974. I joined not long after. For us, the lack of mains power was a decided advantage. We wanted to make our own: build our own houses, grow our own food, supply our own water, generate our own electricity. We were working for a sustainable future, and wanted no part of the produce of brown coal in the La Trobe Valley.
Two groups experimented with wind power, and everyone invested in solar-electric panels.
It didn't take long to discover the problems with propeller type wind turbines. At Nyora, sudden shifts in the wind destroyed the machine three times, and lightning struck it twice. Not unreasonably, the insurance company refused to renew cover after the last time. The other place at Mudburra was so challenging to wind turbines that the Victorian Solar Energy Council used it to test out new designs. Any machine that survived a couple of months here was bound to flourish anywhere else.
But long before these events, the outside world came to threaten our love affair with renewable energy. The State Electricity Commission wanted to establish a chain of microwave towers, so that power stations in the La Trobe Valley could have secure communication with Head Office. Presumably, the secrets of the SEC couldn't be trusted to the telephone. And Mount Toolebewong was an ideal place for a tower.
One neighbour was happy to sell a bit of land to the SEC, and tried to organise all the landowners to apply for power. After all, otherwise the SEC would have had to pay for all the costs of a new spur line! To this man's surprise, to the surprise of the authorities, we weren't interested in their generous offer. Apart from the Co-op, three of the 50 or so blocks of land were occupied. None of us residents wanted mains power, the principal reason being protection for the land.
In the '50s, before planning controls were thought of, someone made a fortune through two inappropriate subdivisions. Long, narrow ribbons of land were drawn on a plan, nuzzling up to a road like piglets to a sow's udders. It must have looked practical on paper, but reality is different. The gravel road is almost impossibly steep in a couple of locations, and the blocks tumble down the steep, vulnerable slope. And this slope is the western view of the mountain that people see as they approach Healesville along the Maroondah Highway.
Most of these blocks had changed hands many times, but apart from three hardy families, all the owners were discouraged from living there -- they would have had to live without the benefits of civilisation like microwave cookers, and dishwashers, and clothes dryers, and colour television. How could anyone live without mains electricity?
Those of us actually living on the mountain could see the damage of unplanned development. Each block would need an access road, and a clearing large enough for a house without undue risk from the terrible fires that might rage up the slope. The vigorous regrowth following the fires of '62 would have to be removed in wide swaths, and on the steep ground, it is tree roots that hold the fragile, friable mountain soil. An aqueduct, part of Melbourne's water supply, takes water from this area, and domestic waste water and leached soil would be likely to contaminate this.
For two and a half years, we managed to use such arguments to legally block the power line. Then, the SEC held a landowners' meeting in its offices at Ringwood. We knew we had lost when the spokesman explained, "Power to your property boundary will cost you between one and two thousand dollars. The value of your block will immediately rise by at lest ten thousand."
We tried non-violent protest, and blocked the road with our bodies. We were a seven-day wonder, featuring on the TV news, being written up in the major newspapers, interviewed on radio. And we almost won. A State election was coming, and Labor promised an environmental impact study. But that was the election Labor lost by one seat.
The power line came through, a 40 meter wide swath through the cherished wilderness of our eastern slope. We received compensation for the alienated land, and also we had accumulated some profits from our Festivals. We wanted to invest this money in alternative energy.
Everyone had heard of us then, including Manfred. I immediately liked him: wavy, steel-grey hair, a stocky, powerful body that never stayed still, a habitually excited blue glitter behind the spectacles. His hands looked strong, and yet delicate and sure like an artist's. As the ideas came tumbling from his mouth, he would grab a scrap of paper and sketch casual wonders. Freehand, with a ball-point pen, he could draw a picture that would have challenged me, using a drawing board and squares.
A contract was signed. He obtained a grant from the Solar Energy Council for about half the cost. We paid for the rest, and received a grant, too, to cover components like the battery bank. And if the system didn't work, he would refund our money.
A large structure needs Council approval. The Building Department at Healesville Council was staffed by competent, conscientious, experienced professionals -- when it came to houses. They had never seen a thing like this. Properly, they engaged the services of a consulting engineer.
It is not easy, being a consulting engineer. You put your signature on a piece of paper, and if years later the project suffers a catastrophe, you might be sued, and see your livelihood destroyed. So, the dangers imposed by the law make an engineer very conservative. The recommendations might make the project twice as expensive. It might become unworkable. But at least, such problems are not grounds for legal action. So, the engineer's recommendation was that the Darrieus should be significantly strengthened. My guess is, he understood it no better than the Council.
As a writer, I've often suffered the grief of rejections. Especially when it is for a major work, I despair at the hobnailed boots of disdain trampling on the baby of my spirit. That's how Manfred felt. But he rallied, and drew up a second design. This one included horizontal steel pipe braces, and extra steel cables, and would certainly survive a hurricane. The trouble was, it would take a hurricane to work it. I have seen it spin up of its own accord once, when the wind was wrenching trees from the ground, and Melbourne was devastated by wrecked roofs. There was a great deal of extra weight. Forces that would have kept the previous design turning were now inadequate. All those extra components were things that caught the wind, dragging the spinner to a stop.
Manfred tried, with a persistence that roused my admiration, and my pity. He worked harder, and for longer hours, and invested every cent in further experiments. He replaced the original fibreglass blades with more expensive stainless steel. These had about twice the driving force -- still not enough. He clothed the horizontal struts with airfoil covers to reduce their wind drag, to no effect. He replaced the starter motor with a larger one, then with the drive out of a large forklift truck. And then, he installed a large petrol-driven stationary engine. This was an admission of defeat. Now, the system was no longer automatic, but would need human intervention to start up.
The stresses were telling. After years of effort, Manfred had to move on. He still worked hard, and long hours, but now the money was in order to honour his contract. He repaid us our money, every last cent. Then, after a long period of inactivity, he sold the structure to Monash University, as a toy for graduate students. The sale price would not cover the scrap value of the structure.
Manfred is still around, and still designing wind turbines. And the Darrieus is still there, quiet, still, majestic. It is not a heap of junk. It is not an object of shame. It is an inspiration, a memorial to a spirit of fearless enquiry, of the attitude of daring to risk, of persistence beyond the call of duty. And it is a reminder that our over-tamed, risk-phobic society kills more than it cherishes.
Bob Rich's blog Bob's psychology site Bob's mudsmith site Moora Moora's web site