Sunday, April 7, 2013

Beauty Follows Science, or Sailing On Lake Tahoe is Another Kind Of Wind Power

I often watch the sailing regattas on Lake Tahoe and admire the beauty of airfoils designed to extract power from the wind.

A few weeks ago, I saw a second cousin to those gorgeous sailboats.
I was driving through the Mojave Desert when I overtook a slow-moving truck with a flashing sign that said “Oversized load.”
Wow, talk about understatement. You know those logging trucks where the cab is connected to the rear wheels not by a truck structure but by the logs themselves? This truck was like that, except it seemed like it was maybe 200 feet long.
I slowed as I moved into the left lane to go past.
What I saw was a fantastic, beautiful, monstrous curve of white. It may have been made of fiberglass or titanium or some other techy material. I couldn't tell. It curved in all three dimensions and brought back hazy memories of reading about hyperbolic paraboloids from science texts back in college.
I thought it was the largest – and one of the most beautiful – abstract sculptures I'd ever seen. Then I realized what I was looking at.
It was a single blade for a monster wind turbine.

I slowed my car, matched speeds with the truck, and stared at this wing that was much longer than those on a 747 jet and, with its complicated multiple curves, probably more complicated in design. It was like an America's Cup sailboat-meets-Mars-mission technology.
Up close, it was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen, a beautiful shape that was designed to extract power from the wind. It was beautiful because the the science behind its design made it that way.

It is humbling to realize that the science of function is integral to many things of beauty. When I look at the spectacular sails of the boats out on Lake Tahoe, I realize that their beauty comes from a design that is all about function. 
WoodWind II Sailing Cruises on Tahoe

After seeing that huge turbine blade, I can never again look at the spinning blades of wind turbines without seeing them like sailboats. These are sails that turn. They take the invisible wind and turn it into electricity. A wind farm with many turbines is like a regatta with many racing boats. Instead of producing an afternoon thrill ride on the water, the turbines power our lights and appliances.
Beauty follows science.


  1. I live here in the Columbia River Gorge (Oregon), and driving east--up the river, the wind machines look like Sentenials of the Gorge! I am so happy that so many of the dry-land wheat ranchers are getting them on their ranches--as the Gorge winds gust @65 mph! (and they get $1K per wind machine each and every month!)
    I love 'em! So now we have dam-power (hydro-power) and now wind power!

    1. Yes, every time I drive by a wind farm I feel good knowing that those turbines are producing serious amounts of electricity without putting more carbon into the atmosphere. Instead of thinking they are a blight on the landscape, I see them just like a collection of sailboats on a lake.