The following is an excerpt from: The big solution: seven practical steps to save our planet by Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis.
If you had met Dew Oliver in 1926, you might have written him a check. Many people did that and regretted it. He was a charming Texan who ran across Southern California in a cream Stetson cowboy hat, a walrus mustache, and talked about making money plans. His boldest idea was a plan to catch the wind.
mr. Oliver, like just about everyone who went through the San Gorgonio Pass, was very impressed with the wind there. Created by the famous San Andreas Fault, the pass is one of the steepest in the United States, with the mountains on either side rising nearly nine thousand feet above it. Like many mountain passes, it functions as a wind tunnel. As the hot desert air from California’s interior rises, cooler air from the Pacific Ocean flows west through the pass. The story goes that Mr. Oliver realized how strong that wind was when they blew his Stetson off his head.
His schedule was actually quite simple. He wanted to build a ten-ton steel funnel to catch the wind and then send it through propellers connected to a 25,000-watt generator. His intent was to sell the electric power to the burgeoning nearby resort town of Palm Springs. He apparently didn’t realize that a local utility company had already claimed the city and wouldn’t welcome an intruder. But he did have it built: In 1927, Mr. Oliver’s wind machine was built in a spot a few feet from where Interstate 10 passes today. A huge funnel at the front was attached to a cylinder seventy-five feet long by twelve feet wide, containing propellers to power a second-hand generator that Mr. Oliver had been saving. But even Mr Oliver had underestimated the force of the wind: during the first tests, a propeller turned too fast and set the first generator on fire. He found a bigger one. Still, the few customers he managed to sign in complained that his machine’s power supply was erratic. Needing more money to upgrade his equipment, Mr. Oliver promised to sell stock to local people, and it seems he wasn’t quite honest with them about the risks of his venture.
It is believed that the costs may have slipped his mind, but whatever the cause, the plan failed. Oliver was taken to court and convicted of illegally selling stock. After a brief stint in prison, he fled California, and his machine sat abandoned in the desert for years, only to be taken apart for scrap in World War II. Why would an investor be tricked into writing checks for such a crazy plan? In fact, the idea of generating electricity from the wind was a hot idea in the 1920s, and many Americans had read about it, if not seen it work. On thousands of farms that were not yet connected to the electricity grid, families were eager to access the new medium of the time: radio.
This new technology had become hugely popular in the mid-1920s, with 500 new channels going on the air in one year, 1923. In the pre-radio era, farmers got along well at night with kerosene lanterns and no electricity, but many now felt they needed to be connected to the modern world. For starters, critical agricultural news, including daily prices, was now broadcast on the radio. Start-ups floated through the countryside, selling kits containing a small wind turbine connected to a generator, a set of batteries, a radio and a few electric lamps. The devices were called wind chargers and were eventually obsolete in the 1940s, when one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs provided near-universal access to the electrical grid. Many decades later, however, the cultural memory of the wind loaders would prove to be important. Very conservative people living in the middle of the country, who could be expected to resist newfangled inventions like large commercial wind turbines, recalled hearing about wind loaders from their grandparents. The idea of harvesting the wind, the way you harvested a crop, would be a perfectly sensible thing to do for many of them.
By the time the wind-charger business collapsed in the middle of the century, it was clear that you could get significant amounts of electricity from the wind. A few people had the vision to see how much more wind energy could become: With extensive support from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a large-scale turbine was built during this time to supply electricity to the grid. Installed atop a mountain in Vermont called Grandpa’s Knob, the turbine operated intermittently but successfully for five years, sending power to the Champlain Valley below. The turbine broke down towards the end of World War II and as power from the wind was slightly more expensive than power from conventional generators, the local utility decided not to pay for new turbines. Yet a dream had come to life, and he would not die. The foremost scientist in American public life at the time, Vannevar Bush — who had been President Franklin Roosevelt’s scientific adviser during World War II — had been closely monitoring the project.
“The large wind turbine on a mountain in Vermont proved that humans could build a practical machine that would synchronously generate electricity in large quantities using wind power,” wrote Dr. Bush in 1946. “It also proved that the cost of electricity so produced is close to that of the more economical conventional means. And so it proved that in the future houses can be lit and factories can be powered by these new means. ” Although Dew Oliver’s project to generate wind energy in the desert came to nothing, he had done one thing right: he had indeed found one of the best places in the country to catch the wind, half a century after his plan. had failed, the idea of generating electricity on a commercial scale with wind turbines would be reborn, and the San Gorgonio Pass would be one of the places where it happened.
Copyright © 2022 by Justin Gillis and Hal Harvey. From the forthcoming book THE BIG FIX: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet by Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis, published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission.