5-1 Bicycling to a windfarm

August 3, 2013

Before now, the first and only time I visited a windfarm was thirty years ago in the Altamont Pass in California. Canadian Renewable Energy News sent me to the annual American Wind Energy Association conference and that year it was in San Francisco. On that day, it wasn't windy, and the huge machines sat idle.

This summer, not only did I get to visit an active windfarm, I got to bicycle to it. 

We decided to take a little vacation to Kingston on the shore of Lake Ontario. Its just over an hour away. I came up with the idea of bringing our bicycles. Yes, I can fit a pair of bikes in the back of a Toyota Echo hatchback. We stayed at an "Air B&B" house, having to ourselves the entire ground floor of a little post war house near the Kingston Penitentiary which looks like a colonial fortress. But we didn't put the bikes in the car and drive it onto the ferry to Wolfe Island and then unpack the bikes there. No, we left the car behind and rode our bikes along the lakeshore to the downtown Kingston ferry terminal and then rode them off the ferry onto the island and then up to the vast western plain where the windfarm stands.

We got off our bikes and walked them up a hill twice on this trip. The first time was just at the start. Kingston has a few steep hills here and there. You can avoid them but only if you know where they are. The second time was on Wolfe Island, near the start of the ride. Hey, no point in killing yourself. But once we were up on the plain, there was only the wind to contend with and only on the outward leg. I recommend bringing some bottled water. You can get dehydrated without even knowing it. Stop and drink some at least every hour.

First we stopped at a sheltered kiosk which has a few descriptive panels lifted off the company brochures. Eighty-six Siemens wind turbines pump out up to 197 megawatts in total, enough to power something like 200,000 homes, but annually average output is supposed to be about one quarter of the peak. The giant three-bladed windmill rotors slowly revolved atop 200-foot-tall tubular towers extending off into the distance. All but one turbine was in operation in a cooling breeze under a hot sun. From the nearest machine, upwind of us about half a mile away, I could hear a steady hum but nothing else. The only other sound was the wind itself and the occasional passing car. It was hard to believe that objects this massive were animating the space so quietly. The kiosk was okay but I could see the control centre for this project on the next county line road. So we got back on our bikes and rode over to it.

Laying on the ground by the control centre were three windmill blades, each the length of the ferry we came on. Behind the building stood a large power transformer module. We went inside for introductions and to ask permission to pose and take pictures. Permission was cheerfully granted and the camera clicks ensued while I shared my background and a few stories from when this was all new in the early 1980s. Giant wind turbines such as these were first built in the late 1970s as prototypes in a handful of countries, in response to the price of oil shooting up and perhaps also Three Mile Island nearly melting down. Various designs were tried out but in the end, the Danish style of wind turbine coming out of the agricultural machinery and boat-building industries proved to be the last survivor. These at first had a peak output of 50 kilowatts and through the last 20 years have been built progressively larger.

When it comes to bird impacts, the cat is out of the bag. Pet cats and feral pet cats kill more birds than all the windmills and glass skyscraper windows combined. When it comes to bats, which we are all supposed to endorse but don't build bat houses, windmill blades kill them when they fly through the wake behind the trailing edges. Its called cavitation, a powerful drop in air pressure. A bat might as well try to fly though the Niagara Falls. However, bats avoid flying when the wind speed is high enough for large wind turbines to begin operating. Delaying start up to slightly higher wind speeds, in which power output is minimal or the machine is just coasting, seems to stop the body count.

We rode back along a southern road with the wind mostly at our backs. Once we stopped for some shade and listened to another windmill, this time downwind of us. I could hear a jet engine-like swish, peaking either when a blade dropped down and crossed in front of the tower or else a blade would simply come to face us and reflect the sound it always makes but bouncing the noise in different directions.

Bicycling on Wolfe Island was my first highway-type riding experience. The paved road has an 80 kph speed limit but there were hardly any cars and you could see and hear them coming from a mile away. The unpaved roads were flattened gravel. I'm glad we were on mountain bikes because skinny hard tires would have made a very bumpy ride.

From there, back down to the village and on to the ferry back to Kingston. That was fun!