Reflections of a Wind Energy Pioneer

Sometimes I forget how long I’ve been carrying this dream of a renewable energy future…

Back in 1976, with my early wages as a newly-minted electronics engineer, I purchased 30 hectares of very marginal hill country for $6000 out the back of the Mount Lofty Ranges behind Adelaide. I had a head full of ideas about living a self-sufficient existence out there, but it proved to be too dry and certainly too windy.

At the time I was designing mining instrumentation, and carried on with that in Australia, Papua-New Guinea and Canada.

When I had enough money together, I went off hitch-hiking through Asia, Europe, Canada and North America.

In my rucksack I carried a notebook which I filled up with drawings of mechanical data loggers that would somehow be able to measure and record wind speeds and rainfall on this (now mythical) MEA site, which we called Pine Hut Knob. [It’s located off Pine Hut Road, and at the time, the only wind generator operating in the world was on a hill called Grandpa’s Knob in Vermont USA]. This was in an era before microcontrollers and personal computers had arrived, so electronic data loggers for remote monitoring were yet to come onto the scene in any useful sense.

When I arrived back in Australia in 1983, thoroughly fed up with building mining instrumentation, I worked on a farm shoveling pig shit and driving tractors while I angled for a berth on the second South Australian Wind Energy Survey (the first was conducted by ETSA in 1953 – the year I was born - by another engineer named Les Mullett, who apparently managed the whole thing in an ancient Land Rover and occasionally on horseback). I won the contract for the noble sum of $9000 per year – apparently no other electronic engineers with wife and kinder wanted to live below the poverty line for three years to set up wind monitoring sites around South Australia.

When that all came to an end in 1987, a single 300kW Nordex wind turbine was set up near the Coober Pedy diesel power station. There was no wind, but the Minister for Mines and Energy of the day figured this turbine would be very visible to tourists travelling up to Ayers Rock, so he went against all our advice and went for political points. This probably set wind power in South Australia back a decade, as the blades rarely turned (no bloody wind!)

With wind energy monitoring moribund, the fledgling MEA went off and became involved in monitoring railway locomotives, the activity of millipedes, climate, soil moisture, and literally thousands of other environmental applications where we cut our teeth in remote measurements. All that experience stood us in good stead when wind energy monitoring came back into vogue in the late 1990’s.

Pacific Hydro recently called townsfolk and land owners together out near Pine Hut Knob to talk to them about their plans for putting up a wind farm in SA pretty much where, a decade earlier, I suggested they look.

How many other folk can say they’ve seen a dream come true? This new wind farm will be visible from the peak at Pine Hut Knob, where it all began for me and MEA 35 years ago.