This is the last of four pieces on Spain whose themes are not common in travelogues. I have chosen these because, each one, in some way, has informed or illuminated some issue or experience of my own life. The subject of this episode came to me as we traveled from Madrid to Andalusia on the the AVE. As we flew across Castilla de la Mancha, I looked out on the neat rows of giants, hugging the ridges of the rolling hills, their long spindly arms going round and round, and thought of Don Quijote and how he had also gazed upon them so long ago. Now tall and svelte these giants bear little resemblance to the squat bulk of their forebears, but their riches are still intact.
We, humans, have long used the wind for our own purposes. Capturing it in sails to power boats, we have explored our world, engaged in far-flung commerce, and built nations. To feed ourselves, we have used it to mill grain and later to protect our land and quench our thirst, we have used it to pump water. Today wind is a tour de force in the generation of electricity. Nowhere is this use more apparent than in Spain.
The first evidence of man’s use of windmills comes from Persia somewhere around 900 AD. From there, some time before or in the 1200s, their use spread to Europe. Today, everyone is familiar with the picturesque windmills of the Netherlands and the ranch windmills of the U.S. west. Spain also has a long history with wind power. In Spain’s most famous literary work from the Golden Age, commonly known as Don Quijote, the 30 or 40 windmills on the plains of La Mancha that rise in front of that same Don Quijote are, to him, hulking giants which he will slay and, then, reap their riches. Even as his sidekick, Sancho Panzo tries his best, but to no avail, to get Don Quijote to understand that his giants are nothing more than windmills whose sails whirled around by the wind turn the mill stone for grinding grain, we understand that at some level Don Quijote is right. These are giants that have the power to generate many riches indeed. Today, in Spain they are doing just that.
Whether looking out the window of the AVE as we speed across the Spanish countryside from Madrid to Sevilla or looking down from the window of a plane flying high above, Spain is a country of wind power. Contrary to what some people regard as eyesores, these machines, populating the wind corridors along the rolling plains and the waters of the coast, are sleek and beautiful. Some complain that they are noisy. In truth, they are not especially more so than the wind itself as it blows across the plains. If asked to choose among the soot-spewing smokestacks of giant coal burning furnaces, or the poisonous residue of nuclear power generators, or the graceful arms of wind turbines turning, I’d take wind any day. Wind energy is clean (it reduces greenhouse gases and other pollutants); it’s renewable; no one has to mine it, drill for it, or create nuclear fission to obtain it; and it uses local resources (it doesn’t have to be shipped from some far and distance land). It creates jobs. And, it is economical, its prices having dropped in line with the more familiar, conventional energy sources.
Today, Spain ranks third globally, right behind the U.S. and Germany in cumulative wind power capacity. In 2008, the wind generated more than 11 percent of Spain’s electricity, and, according to one recent study contributes more to Spain’s gross domestic product than any other industry. Spain is home to leaders in wind farm operations and technology with more than 500 companies and many productive research efforts. A few of the Spanish giants include: Gamesa Eólica, the world’s second largest turbine manufacturer having 15.5 percent global market share in 2008; Iberdrola, the world’s largest wind-farm owner and operator, managing more than 7,700 megawatts of power in 19 countries; and Acciona Energía, the world’s largest wind-farm builder and developer having delivered for itself and others more than 208 wind farms by the end of 2008.
The Spanish government, through policy and regulation, has been instrumental in pushing innovation in the wind industry. Take, for example, the challenge of forecasting wind energy production. In Spain, the good news is that the electric power grid has to accept wind energy contributions. The bad news is that wind farm operators must predict their energy contribution accurately or suffer penalties. Predicting the wind is difficult and forecasting how much wind energy will be put on the electric grid is daunting. But, Spanish companies are doing just that and have taken the lead in what is called microsite prediction. This allows wind power suppliers to forecast how much wind energy any given turbine will produce given the meteorological conditions.
This is not to say that exciting developments in wind power are not happening right here in the United States. Today the U.S. is a world leader in the wind industry. For four years in a row, the U.S. has claimed the title of the fastest-growing wind power market with wind adding 42 percent of all new U.S. electrical generating capacity in 2008. Happily, accompanying the growth of wind power, is an increased demand for wind turbine components. Today 50 percent of those required come from U.S. manufacturing which has added 8,400 new jobs to meet required production.
I am lucky to live in a city that asks its citizens to get “Green.” Through our city’s utility department my family has joined the Green Team. We subscribe to good energy conservation habits like unplugging cell phone chargers when not in use and using CFL bulbs, and all the electricity we use comes from renewable sources. While 2.5 percent comes from the sun the majority, 97.5 percent, comes from the wind. Using clean, renewable energy means that, every year, our family, without making any sacrifices, avoids putting about 9,500 pounds of CO2 into the air. That’s equivalent to not driving my car for 9 months of the year. Sure, we pay a little extra a month, about $9.00, but this cost is more than offset by the savings we enjoy at our local hardware store, cleaners, and other merchants through Green Team member discounts on purchases.
And, so as the song says, “Like a circle in a spiral, Like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel,” (Les moulins de mon coeur, The Windmills of Your Mind, lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, 1968) favorable winds blow.
All original content copyright 2009 Mary E. Slocum