A tale from the early era of wind power

Below is an excerpt The Big Fix: Seven practical steps to save our planet by Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis.

If you had met Dew Oliver in 1926, you might have written him a check. Many people did it and regretted it. He was a charming Texan who walked around Southern California with a cream Stetson cowboy hat and a walrus mustache making money-making schemes. His boldest idea was a plan to capture the wind.

Mr. Oliver, like pretty much everyone else who has passed the San Gorgonio Pass, was mighty impressed by the winds there. The pass, created by the famous San Andreas Fault, is one of the steepest in the United States, with mountains on either side rising nearly 10,000 feet above it. Like many mountain passes, it acts as a wind tunnel. As hot desert air rises in central California, cooler air from the Pacific Ocean flows through the pass to the west. The story goes that Mr. Oliver realized how strong those winds were when they blew his Stetson off his head.

His plan was really quite simple. He wanted to erect a ten-ton steel funnel to capture the wind and then send it through propellers connected to a 25,000-watt generator. His intention was to sell the power to the burgeoning nearby resort of Palm Springs. Apparently he didn’t realize that a local utility had already claimed the town and would not welcome an intruder. But he had the thing built: By 1927, Mr. Oliver’s wind machine had been erected on a spot a few yards from where Interstate 10 now runs. A huge funnel at the forward end was attached to a cylinder twenty-five feet long and twelve feet wide, which contained propellers to drive a used generator which Mr. Oliver had purchased. But even Mr. Oliver had underestimated the power of the wind: During the first tests, a propeller turned too fast and set the first generator on fire. He found a bigger one. But the few customers he was able to win complained that his machine’s performance was erratic. Needing more money to upgrade his equipment, Mr Oliver committed himself to selling shares to local people and it seems he has not been entirely honest with them about the risks of his venture.

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One suspects he missed the cost, but whatever the reason, the plan backfired. Mr. Oliver was taken to court and found guilty of unlawful sale of shares. After a brief stint in prison, he escaped from California and his machine stood alone in the desert for years until it was eventually scrapped during World War II. Why would an investor be fooled into writing checks for such a crazy scheme? In fact, the idea of ​​generating electricity from wind was a hot idea in the 1920s, and many Americans had read about it, if not seen it work. On thousands of homesteads that were not yet connected to the electricity grid, the families longed for the new medium of the time: the radio.

A century ago, wind power was an agricultural norm.  What happened?
The Big Fix is ​​available on September 20, 2022. Simon & Schuster

This new technology had gained popularity by the mid-1920s when 500 new stations went on the air in a single year, 1923. In the days before radio, farmers got by at night with kerosene lanterns and no electricity. but many now felt they needed to connect with the modern world. On the one hand, critical agricultural news, including daily prices, were now being broadcast on the radio. Start-up companies roamed the country selling kits containing a small wind turbine and generator, a set of batteries, a radio, and an electric lamp or two. Dubbed wind chargers, the devices were finally made obsolete in the 1940s when one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs provided near-universal access to the electrical grid. Many decades later, however, the cultural memory of wind mammals would prove important. Deeply conservative people living in the middle of the country, who were expected to oppose such newfangled inventions as large commercial wind turbines, recalled hearing about wind chargers from their grandparents. The idea of ​​reaping the wind as one reaps a crop would seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to many of them.

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When the wind charger business collapsed in the middle of the century, it was clear that significant amounts of electrical energy could be generated from wind. A few had a vision of just how much bigger wind power could get: During this period, with extensive support from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a large turbine was built to feed electricity into the power grid. The turbine, installed on a Vermont mountain called Grandpa’s Knob, ran intermittently but successfully for five years, sending power to the Champlain Valley below. The turbine broke down towards the end of World War II, and since electricity from wind was slightly more expensive than electricity from conventional generators, the local utility chose not to pay for new turbines. But a dream had come to life, and he wasn’t going to die. The most important scientist in American public life at the time, Vannevar Bush – who had been a scientific adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II – had kept a close eye on the project.

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“The great wind turbine on a Vermont mountain proved that humans could build a practical machine that would use wind power to synchronously generate electricity in large quantities,” wrote Dr. Bush in 1946. “It also proved that the cost of electricity so produced approximates that of the more economical conventional means. And in doing so, it proved that in the future these new means could be used to light homes and power factories.” While Dew Oliver’s project to generate wind power in the desert had failed, he had got one thing right: he actually had one of the found the best spots in the nation to catch the wind. Half a century after his plan went under, the idea of ​​commercial power generation using wind turbines was reborn, and the San Gorgonio Pass was one of the places where this happened.

Copyright © 2022 by Justin Gillis and Hal Harvey. From the forthcoming book THE BIG FIX: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet by Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis, published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission.

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