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History of Wind Power

March 8, 2018
Paul Gipe

Sex Sells--Even Wind Energy: The Dalhart Mystery


Sex sells. Always has, always will. Sex has been used to sell beer, cars, and even wind energy--well, at least articles about wind energy.

Back in the mists of time when I began my career writing about renewable energy, I wrote an article for a then popular magazine called Home Energy Digest. The article about some strange goings-on in the Texas Panhandle piqued the curiosity of the editors enough that they hired a graphic artist to illustrate a spread that "jumped the gutter."

As the lowly writer of the article, I had no say in the graphic or how the magazine pitched the article. Hell, I was just happy to get paid. Those were very lean days.

Home Energy Digest featured my piece "The Dalhart Mystery," in their fall 1980 issue. When I saw the spread I nearly fell out of my chair. In the foreground is a ruggedly handsome man with blueprints in his hands. In the background is a woman with an enticing bare shoulder gazing longingly at the man. The wind turbine stood behind them, sweeping an arc that encompassed both figures.

My first thought was, gee, they must have liked the article.

I don't know what they paid the artist, Ron Finger, but it was worth it. Finger was good, very good. He's gone on to greater things and now has a stunning portfolio (see www.redpine.net).

I thought the article was good then, and--reading over the introduction today after nearly four decades have passed--I still think it was good.

Oh, about the windmills and the mystery surrounding them.

In the spring of 1979 Vaughn Nelson and I had stumbled over this secret wind farm being built near Dalhart, Texas about 100 miles northwest of Amarillo. We didn't know a thing about it and it was our job to know these things.

Nelson founded West Texas State University's Alternative Energy Institute and was one of the world's experts on wind energy. I was working for him and teaching a class on solar energy at the university. By that time I'd already worked briefly for the American Wind Energy Association and had salvaged a slew of 1930's-era windchargers. But we were both stumped when locals began asking us about the Dalhart wind farm.

Now in those days a wind turbine, any wind turbine, was an odd site. And a wind farm was unheard of. "What in the world is going on in Dalhart?" we wondered.

Finding out necessitated a flurry of phone calls. Remember those? These were the days before the Internet and Google. The company behind the project, Wind Chemical Corporation, wasn't talking. Nada. Zip.

All we could figure was that they were going to use the electricity from the wind farm to make chemicals of some kind. The utility there certainly wasn't going to cooperate with them.

The whole thing smelled funny so I loaded up my troublesome Audi Fox and headed out to one of the most wind-swept parts of the windy Great Plains. All I found was a lot of cheap Korean steel pipe and what looked like the beginnings of a three-bladed vertical-axis rotor. No wind turbine was standing when I was there, though there were several upright towers. Later Meg Mooring got a photo of what looks like one Musgrove-type, straight-bladed VAWT.

By the number of holes in the ground, I figured they were building an 11 by 12 array equivalent to 132 machines. Wow. This was the biggest wind project in the world at the time. It was right in our backyard and no one knew anything about it, including us.

The wind turbines--I use that term guardedly as the devices never worked satisfactorily--were intended to use cloth blades over airfoil-shaped ribs and deliver power to ground level through a rotating shaft.

That this project was doomed from the get-go never dawned on the tight-lipped developers behind it.

As I was to see time and time again throughout my career, these developers of a super-dooper VAWT knew everything they needed to know. They certainly were not interested in learning anything from some academics--at least one academic. I hardly qualified.

Later, as the project foundered, they actively sought outside help. They were even considering how to convert the towers to conventional horizontal-axis wind turbines. By then it was too late and they soon disappeared like so many others that have followed since.

But that stealth project in the Texas Panhandle launched the sexiest spread for any article I've ever written. And for that I am thankful.

I had another article elsewhere in the magazine. This one was more prosaic and typical of my style. The graphic that went with it? Well, not quite as sexy as the feature spread.

 


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