The IREC Interview: Wind Advocate Paul Gipe
Paul Gipe is an author, advocate and renewable energy industry analyst. He has written extensively about renewable energy for both the popular and trade press. His most recent book is “Wind Energy Basics: A Guide to Home- and Community-scale Wind Energy Systems.” In 2004, Gipe launched a campaign to bring electricity feed laws back to North America. The campaign has grown into a continent-wide grassroots movement that has put renewable energy feed-in tariffs on the policy agenda in Canada and the U.S. Paul Gipe’s is an important voice in the small wind world. While IREC does not take a position on issues such as feed-in tariffs, we are happy to provide a forum for conversation around these vital topics. We recently spoke with Paul about his work.
I was struck, while reading your biography, that you started out in this field around the same time that many other renewable energy leaders (including Larry Sherwood, editor of this newsletter) began their work – the mid-to-late 1970s. The energy crisis of that time sparked a lot of passion among young people. How did you first get involved?
I was an environmental activist – still am. I was lobbying against the strip mining of coal and for a federal law that would regulate it. (It took seven years of effort, but was a major milestone in U.S. energy policy.) I’ve always felt that you just can’t be against something; you also need to be for something. So as a campaigner against surface coal mining I would promote the use of what was then called “alternative” energy. Once an old state or federal pol, can’t remember which now, called me on it and said: “Son, that there renewable energy stuff just doesn’t exist.” He was right of course, so I decided to put my career where my mouth was. Solar was – and still is – pretty boring to me, so I chose to do what I could with wind energy.
Share with us some of the highlights of your career since then, and how you’ve seen the work change over the years you’ve been in renewable energy.
Most importantly, renewables – and especially wind – are no longer an “alternative source of energy.” That has been a theme of mine for more than two decades. My 1995 book, “Wind Energy Comes of Age,” celebrated that accomplishment and we should never forget how far we’ve come.
Think about it. Germany today generates more electricity from renewables than either nuclear or hard coal. Only brown coal generates more electricity than renewables, and that’s not by much. Denmark gets 28 percent of its electricity from wind alone and 41 percent from all renewables.
One big break was jumping into the junk windcharger business in 1976 when I was working on the geohydrologic impacts of coal liquefaction in Montana. That was an exciting and sometimes dangerous time removing those old windchargers atop rickety towers with only basic tools.
The next came with an opportunity to study under Vaughn Nelson at West Texas State University. I learned from Vaughn that wind really boiled down to rotor swept area and I’ve been preaching that gospel ever since.
After my first book came out in 1983, I followed the industry west and joined California’s great wind rush. There was and will never be another time like that in renewable energy. It was a heady, exhilarating – and exhausting – time. The sky was the limit, and so were the working hours. There were brawls in the local bars between Danish technicians and local cowboys. You could hear German, Italian and Dutch being spoken in the cafés alongside English. It was international, and yet, truly “American.” Everyone had that “can do” attitude that we Americans used to be known for. And we did it. We proved that wind energy could provide commercial quantities of electricity. Those turbines have been churning out one to two percent of California’s electricity for a quarter-century now. I am proud to have been a part of that.
When the industry collapsed at the end of 1985, I was fortunately fired from my PR job and went back to what I was doing before and have done ever since —advocating the aggressive development of renewable energy, especially wind, my area of expertise.
How did you start to focus on wind energy, and small wind, specifically?
I don’t focus on “small wind.” When we began developing “wind energy” in the 1970s here in North America, there really only was “small” wind by today’s standards. I was never a part of the NASA-ERDA-GE-Boeing-crowd developing the multimegawatt turbines. I thought, they were the people who got us into this predicament in the first place — how could we expect them to get us out? So I naturally gravitated to those on the “outside” of the military-industrial complex.
It’s important to note, though, that while we were developing wind turbines three, four or five meters in diameter, the Danes and the Germans started with machines 10 meters in diameter. To put that in perspective, Northern Europeans were working with wind turbines four-times larger than our largest machines. And of course, it was the descendents of those machines that we eventually imported by the thousands in the mid 1980s to California’s wind farms.
You’ve developed a particular role in relationship to the development and adoption of small wind in the U.S. How would you describe your role?
While some may associate my books with “small wind,” that’s not quite an accurate portrayal. My two current books are “trade paperbacks.” As such, they are commercial books and so must appeal to a wide audience that includes those who want to use small wind, as well as those who are interested in other aspects of wind energy.
I see my work as advocating the responsible development of wind energy. Unfortunately, that includes commenting on fraudulent and bogus claims by erstwhile manufacturers, hustlers, and the occasional charlatan. They are a plague on the small wind industry and hurt renewable energy in general.
And it means commenting on problems I see in the small wind industry itself. For example, it took nearly three decades for certification of small wind turbines to be implemented in the U.S. And during that time some respected manufacturers made claims that were not supported by evidence from the field. As the author of books promoting wind energy, I felt obligated to bring these false claims to light.
What do you see as the biggest obstacles to the adoption of small wind more broadly?
As I’ve said in public venues here in North America and in Europe, the small wind industry must grow up if it’s to find its proper place in the renewable energy pantheon. We’ve had 30 years to get it right – and we’re still not there.
Sure, for a battery-charging system off-the-grid, a solar and small wind hybrid system can’t be beat. But for systems connected to the grid, micro and mini wind turbines remain the domain of the hobbyist.
Let me give you a comparison that puts this in perspective. After 30 years, small wind in the U.S. accounts for 200 MW. There is one polder in northern Germany, Friedrich-Wilhelm-Lübke-Koog, only some 3,000 acres in extent, where the 170 residents own, themselves, 50 MW of wind. That’s one quarter of the installed small wind capacity in the U.S. These farmers own the turbines and live amongst them.
What do you think are the most important next steps for the small wind industry at this point?
I’ve been arguing for some time now that for the small wind industry to mature, it must wean itself off subsidies and start on a strict diet of feed-in tariffs. We should only be paid for what we produce – electricity. That’s the point in the end. If small wind must be paid 40 cents per kWh for 20 years to be profitable for the owner, then the industry has to suck it up and say so. And if the public agrees to pay that, as they have in Britain, good, that’s the way it should be. If the price paid is high enough and the profits lucrative enough for the purchasers of small wind to take the risk, then the industry will take off and maybe get to the volumes they’ve been promising for so many years. It’s those high volumes they’ve been promising that will dramatically bring costs down and drive reliability up.
Then, and only then, can we realistically judge if small wind interconnected with the grid makes economic and environmental sense.
Getting back to our earlier topic, today, we’re seeing a surge of new interest in working with renewable energy. What advice do you give to folks who are just starting out?
I get this question a lot and I answer only partly in jest, “Study German or Mandarin.” As we’re seeing right now, the political class in the U.S. still hasn’t made the firm, long-term commitment to renewable energy that we can build an industry on. (The public has long been way out in front on renewable energy policy. They want a lot of renewables and they want it now.) Renewables are a pawn in a political fight over the future of the country. To build a career in renewables as an American, you must be as flexible as you can be, and that may mean going where the jobs are. Then, when the market turns around, you can come back and help build the kind of country that we all want to see with your new-found skills.
Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Paul.