Guest Post by Ed Zuiderwijk,
About a year ago I read in a Dutch national newspaper an article which elaborately and somewhat aggressively argued that if you had the choice between, say, a 1000MW gas-fired power plant and a few thousands windmill generators the latter was the way to go. It was full of the phoney arguments and broken reasoning well-known to readers of this blog, and was, of course, palpable nonsense. I had a good laugh about it; you can’t argue with purveyors of foolishness and, furthermore, when you know something is utterly wrong it is usually completely uninteresting to precisely analyse why. I had almost forgotten about it when some conversation with friends brought it back to my attention and made me question (myself) why it was that I knew with such total clarity that the argument put forward in that article was piffle given that I know not much more in depth about the subject than your average informed layman. After some reflection I realised that it was because of something I was taught many years ago at school. That’s what this posting is about.
I attended primary school in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, a medium size town going back over 750 years and having quite a bit more pedigree than its namesake in the US. Located some 20 km west of Amsterdam, Haarlem had (and has) its fair share of museums (footnote 1), several of which were on the list of school outings. One of these is the Museum Cruquius, located a few miles to the south of the town centre. The place had a lasting effect on the young lad. The exhibition is about the draining (and conversion into a polder) of the Haarlemmermeer, ‘Lake Haarlem’, at the time (about 1850) a substantial inland body of water inside the triangle formed by the cities of Amsterdam, Haarlem and Leiden. The museum building itself is one of the original three pumping stations that emptied the lake and has the original massive steam-driven pump, still in working order. Nowadays the exhibition does a slick multi-media presentation, but then, the late 1950s, you had the thing as it was, basic but very imposing.
What was this lake and why was it drained? That there were lots of shallow lakes in a place called Holland (‘low land’, footnote 2) is no surprise but Lake Haarlem had over the centuries shown a habit of growing, to encroach on the land and gobble up adjacent waters. In particular after a south-westerly gale the damage to its surroundings could be considerable (and irreversible). By the early 1800s it had become a threat to the city of Amsterdam itself and on occasion to Leiden as well. The idea to ‘reclaim’ Lake Haarlem had been proposed several times since the 17th century but it had never been attempted in earnest. One consideration had been that it was at least 5 times the size of anything tried earlier, which would have required an extraordinary number of wind-mill powered pumping stations.
In the 1830s controlling the lake had become a matter of urgency. The government, on instigation by king William I, convened a royal commission to investigate and make recommendations. Mind you, that same king was also a driving force behind the rapid early development of the country’s railway system and with it the Industrial Revolution in the Netherlands; royalty nowadays just don’t do that sort of thing anymore. Not surprisingly the recommendation was to drain the lake, but with steam-driven pumps instead of windmills.
So, how do you do that, drain such a lake? It had been done in Holland since the late 1500s and in particular the early 1600s when several smallish lakes and peat bogs to the north of Amsterdam had been turned into farmland. With the expertise acquired in those and subsequent projects it was well established knowledge how to go about it. The first part of such a project is the easiest and mostly straightforward. You can’t just put a pump on the water and start pumping. Not only is there no outlet for the large quantities of pumped water, even if you succeed in lowering the water levels the lake will refill in no time from the groundwaters of its surroundings, thus drying out the adjacent lands. Bad idea. So what you do is to construct a dyke going around the lake a bit inside its boundary. The waters outside of this ‘ring dyke’ then become, after some further dredging, a relatively narrow canal where the water will be kept at the original lake level. This way you solve three problems at once: the canal still has the original outlets that the lake had so you can dump the pumped water in it, the groundwater level in the surrounding lands is unaffected and you have a controlled waterway for bulk transport. With that dyke in place (3) you can start pumping. And that was where the real problem was with Lake Haarlem.
The pumps used until then were primarily of the paddle wheel type or Archimedes screws driven by windmills if there was enough wind. The engineers had figured out that they would need a really large number of such units, somewhere between 150 and 200, spread out along the odd 60km of dyke and that it would take at least 5 years but more likely a decade to complete the job. The costs of such an operation would be colossal, not mentioning the logistics of it. It would make the project technically unfeasible and economically unaffordable. However, in the 1820s an aristocrat (again!) and member of the senate, Frans Godert baron van Lynden, had written a treatise proposing the radical idea of using steam-driven beam pumps. He knew how the water was kept out of Cornish tin mines in faraway England by using an advanced design of such pumps. A delegation went to Cornwall to have a look and, being competent engineers, they realised in no time that three of such pumps were indeed a much, much better proposition than the odd 200 windmills.
The specially designed pumps were acquired from a company in Plymouth. The engine’s (steam) cylinders were more than 3.6 meter diameter, that’s bigger than my kitchen. They were placed in purpose-built pumping houses, named after pioneering hydro engineers of the past, van der Kruik (aka. Krukius) and Leeghwater and (of course) Lynden. It took three and a quarter years to drain the lake. Afterwards only one was kept in its original state. And this is why the worlds largest vertical steam engine still in existence is found hidden in a small museum in an unremarkable corner of Holland.
When I read that newspaper article about a power plant versus thousands of windmills I knew at once it was nonsense because what its author essentially claimed was that those engineers of the 1840s had had it all wrong, that they should have used windmills instead of steam. The notion is just preposterous. Methinks the 150000 people dwelling on what once was the bottom of Lake Haarlem ought to be told and asked for an opinion, whether they would rather keep their feet dry with windmills or with pumps powered by gas and oil(4).
Are there any take-away messages in this story? Perhaps. One could be about the ‘nonsense detector’ in each of us. How does it work? I consider myself to be a skeptic, but how do I know when to be skeptical and when to acknowledge expertise? If the mechanic tells me that my car doesn’t go because the fuel pump has died I accept that without hesitation. When I discuss the increasing failings of my physique with my doctor I will carefully consider his or her diagnosis. But if some pundit tells me that I need to get my electricity from renewable un-reliables because of whatever, then the alarm of my nonsense detector sounds big time. Why? It appears to me that we as individuals know more than we know we know. That mostly forgotten knowledge and experiences we picked up in life somehow linger and at times emerge to inform and trigger that alarm. In this case I recognised the nonsense not because of some in-depth analysis but because of a completely different look at the matter based on a specific experience.
Nevertheless, an essential aspect of being a skeptic is to not only scrutinise the subject but, most importantly, yourself as well, why you reason the way you do. In this case, why am I certain that those 19th century engineers had it spot on?
It is a matter of geometry, really. The surface area of a lake, and therefore the quantity of water to be shifted, increases with the square of its cross-section, but the space available for the pumps (at the dyke) grows only linearly. This means that the bigger the lake, the more windmills you need. Not just more but more per kilometer of dyke at an increased density. Since you can’t put windmills arbitrarily close together because they catch each other’s wind there is, consequently, a limit to the number of them that can be accommodated. That means that there is a limit to the size of the lake that you can manage using windmills. Lake Haarlem, requiring the odd 200 pumping stations was close to that limit, if not over it: it was too big for the technology of the past. That was the fundamental reason for it not having been tried before. A straightforward way of putting it: by the 1800s the windmill based technique had become obsolete and the engineers knew it. That was some 2 centuries ago. That technological concept, therefore, most certainly is obsolete today.
The idea of going back to wind power for our base-load energy provision is a massive retrograde step, a devolution, an indirection. Don’t be mislead by the shiny modern look of the turning beasts, courtesy of being made of metal and composites. That’s what Americans call: lipstick on a pig. Underneath it is essentially a medieval technology and we are in danger of learning the hard way that it can’t replace power generation from a primary source – coal, gas, nuclear and hydro – with a much higher energy density than wind can ever deliver.
1) If you ever find yourself near the place pay a visit to Teylers museum. It’s a small natural history cum science museum old style with only natural light for illumination and a marvellous collection of science related paraphernalia.
2) The Netherlands has 12 provinces. The name Holland specifically denotes the two provinces adjacent to the North Sea and to the north of the delta formed by the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Schelt.
3) My paternal ancestor Emmanuel Zuiderwijk (six generations between us) of Lisse, a village on the west side of Lake Haarlem, was one of those labouring on the construction of the ring dyke, using only a shovel and a wheelbarrow.
4) The Dutch national airport Schiphol. It is located in the north-east corner of the Haarlemmermeer polder. The name was in use for that part of the lake since well before. It translates as ‘ship’s hell’ because it was the corner where vessels were stranded and often wrecked in serious stormy weather. I always found it somewhat ghoulish having an airport named after a graveyard and sometimes wonder how passengers would feel about it if they knew.
Some urls with more info: