Tilting at windmills

March 01, 2010

There was a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal today on a brewing conflict between natural gas and windmill power.

If you didn't catch the article the basic gist is that growth of wind power in Texas is primarily coming at the expense of the natural gas consumption which is projected to drop by up to 18% by 2013.

Wind power is, of course, in tremendous favor right now and has garnered (probably rightfully) a series of government subsidies and favorable legislation intended to promote adoption, refinement and R&D in what is perceived as a cleaner technology. Which seems like great idea I guess unless you're a natural gas manufacturer in which case you'd be inclined to cry foul. As a citizen of the planet it seems like a reasonable approach (although I am more than willing to bet the natural gas manufacturers are armed with reams of compelling charts and studies on the relative "cleanness" of their industry or the "dirt" on wind turbines). As a business owner I can only imagine the frustration of watching your competitor get a helping hand from the government.

As a business owner, I can only imagine the frustration of watching your competitor get a helping hand from the government.

It reminds me of a couple of external factors that have tremendous impact on the development of emerging technologies. First, is that new technologies are inherently fragile. They are almost always more problematic, expensive and complex that the constituency they're replacing. Meaning with only rare exceptions they often require a bit of life-support . Within a company this life support can take the form of tolerating a lower profitability - or perhaps even unprofitability while the bugs are worked out. In my opinion this can take incredible courage , foresight and is rare and seldom appreciated. Most companies are incapable or politically unwilling to make this kind of investment and are content to follow on with a series of Honey Nut Cheerios like brand extensions. On a larger scale where grand shifts in technology may be required, only governments are capable of providing this life support and have to be willing and able to act with the greater good in mind- think the Space program… or wind mills. Same courage and foresight. Just as rare if not more so.

Finally is the understanding that tinkering with the free market always has unexpected consequences and very real winners and losers for whom the decisions become matters of fiscal life and death. A responsibility that should not be taken lightly.

Oh, by the way... we're playing around with a low cost low power vertical axis wind turbine here at Design Concepts. Here's the Alpha prototype... Hope to have the Beta on line by this summer and take my office "off grid!" Wish us luck!