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TED Global Conference in Oxford: Stunning Speech About Windmills

abstract:&lMaybe it's because I'm here at the farm and looking into windmill technology to harness this ample daily resource so I can pump water into our fieldsóbecause this TED story, the one that's creating such a buzz, has also caught my attention. TEDGlobal 2009 is meeting in Oxford in the UK right now. You can get all the updates on their Twitter page. The speaker who has blown everyone away (literally speaking) is William Kamkwamba from Malawai. Back at TEDGlobal 2007, he was a shy young man who'd built his family a windmill from scrap in order pump water from the ground to save his family from starvation. His story captured the world's attention. Today he walked onstage with confidence to tell his story from that point to this. It's all captured in his book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope Join me, as I compare the topic of his book with my own research, on our own farm, into wind technology here in North America. It's an interesting study in contrast and comparison. Photo: William Kamkwamba at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 7: "Radical development," July 23, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson


July 24, 2009
Every day here at the farm around 1 pm the leaves on the cottonwood tree outside our farmhouse begin to rustle on their thousands of individual pedicals, and the bi-colored leaflets shimmer in the sunlight: green on one side, silver on the other. The sound is incredible, but the significance of that sound is that it signals a daily, renewable resource that I am going to try to harness using the latest available wind turbine technology to power the pump in the well 75 feet under the ground in our field.

After years of tenants and the absentee landlord scenario, we are finally able to re-work the acreage ourselves, and let me tell you, no one does it like YOU do. It's a daunting task for this city-slicker! Our fields previously sustained a gorgeous crop of alfalfa. Alfafla is a bushy-green, deep-rooted forage crop whose bursting purple flowers signal the time to harvest. Wait until 50% of the crop has flowered and you will have steer feed with minimal protein content. Cut it earlier, when the crop has reached only 15% of flower, and you're producing prime-protien feed for thirsty dairy cows, and high-strung race horses, (and little Suzie's prized pony, too).

But the life of an alfalfa field is roughly 6 years from seed to maturity. Then you must till the field until the soil is a fine grain consistency, and then you must re-seed the field with quality fresh alfalfa. That takes a whole lot of tractoring and a whole lot of expensive energy: man power and machine power. This is where the windmill comes inóand the whole point of my story linking our farm to Kamkwamba's. If a young Malwai boy can build a windmill to draw water from the ground to irrigate his family's crops in Africa, why can't I do the same thing here? When does it become cost effective? What are the subsidies to encourage sustainability? How affordable/available are the wind power units to the "Regular Joe" i.e., a farmer?

Water Drawing Basics

Ok. Where do we get water? Most cities on the West Coast draw their water from the snow melt and run-off draining into recevoirs. If you wanted, you could collect it in cisterns directly from the sky when it rains. Or you can use gravity from streams and lakes via ditches or canals.However, in most cases, you've got to pump it out of a well in the ground using an electric motorized pump. These days in North America if you have enough wind to "move" water, you probably have enough wind to generate electricity to use with excess to sell back to your local utility company. This lessens the burdon on fossil fuels - and it's great for the environment.

Our utility company is owned by Fortis, and they've developed a program for people like me called an IPP scheme. IPP stands for "Independent Power Provider". The cost of electricity to power my pump to irrigate our field costs thousands of dollars a season. Most of the farmers in our valley have irrigated hay fields powered by an electric pump, so they can get three cuts off their fields each year. That's a pretty good yield! Dryland farmers would only take one cut a year, and be satisfied with substantially less yield at less cost to produce.

Today I am attempting to discover how much it costs to purchase a "farm" windmill model, to colaborate with my local utility company, to utilize clean energy, and to get our surplus power onto the grid so others are using clean energy. We want to be a green, sustainable farm. Profit is my motivation as much as environmental concerns. It would be great to have both.

A Canadian company named Endurance has their main office in Vancouver, and their manufacturing plant in the USA, (where there are bigger markets, better tax breaks courtesy of Obama's energy policies.) I'm currently looking at their S250-5 kwatt and their G3120-35 kilowatt windmill to determine which best suits our needs and pocket book.

This is not a question that William Kamkwamba had to deal with. Using an engineer's intuition he built a make-shift windmill out of available parts and simply let it do its work. It is enviable. In North America you've got environmental standards, regional grid territories, operational agreements - all to do what William was doing - that is - to pump water from the ground and feed a family.

So follow my Twitter feeds #PrincetonIrrigation, as I sort through the red tape, and discover the just-right piece of machinery to work the field, and sort through the complex marketing and finance structures. I'll let you know how we do in achieving "Kamkwamba's simple dream of sustainability" with available resources.



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