Questions to Hone Critical Thinking
In early March, the Portland-Press Herald began publishing a series of letters from students at the Wayneflete School in Portland, Maine, strongly endorsing a local wind project. Wayneflete is a private high school academy requiring substantial annual tuition. These letters emanated from Jonah Rosenfield’s science class. Here are a few quotes from those letters:
If we are to end our dependence on fossil fuels, we must look to long-term, not short-term solutions to power our world with alternative energy sources; these windmills will certainly serve that purpose.
Maine has the opportunity to be a leader in clean energy efficiency and stewardship of the Earth, and this is why we should build the wind farm.
On an economic level, this endeavor will be very productive. Independence Wind, the corporation heading this project, is a Maine business and will stimulate the state’s economy with the hiring of local employees for this project. The wind energy generated by this farm would be enough to power the entire city of Portland.
This wind farm would supply 129 megawatts of renewable, zero emissions power. That is enough electricity to power the city of Portland, while 55 percent of Maine’s electricity is generated using oil and gas, resources that must be imported.
Relying on fossil fuels requires the destruction of whole mountains and habitats, whereas the turbines merely disturb the view and a smaller area of nature.
In the interests of effectively parsing such rhetoric and injecting epistemological rigor, here are a few questions that the faculty might consider asking, the answers to which should complement the entire curricular experience as it engages students at the intersection of history, civics, science, mathematics, engineering, and economics.
Although it is possible that such inquiry may, perhaps, spoil the happily-ever-after quality that evidently permeates the curriculum at institutions like Wayneflete, students would be required to actually use the knowledge and skills one hopes they were taught in their individual academic subjects.
- Why did the Dutch stop using their windmills to grind their grain and pump water to reclaim their land from the sea–as soon as the steam engine was invented?
- Why are sailing vessels used almost entirely for recreation today, rather than for commercial purposes?
- Why aren’t gliders and dirigibles providing a substantial percentage of commercial air transport?
- What is the difference between energy and power? What would be the likely consequence if all our gas pumps were wind “powered?”
- What is the percentage of oil used in the production of electricity, nationally and in New England?
- Why must electricity supply be matched to demand at all times?
- What are the implications for wind technology given that any power generated is a function of the cube of the wind speed along a narrow range of wind velocities (that is, a wind turbine doesn’t begin to work until the wind speeds hits 9-mph and maxes out when the wind speeds hit around 34-mph)? Explain how a fluctuating source of energy could, by itself, “power” any city.
- If constructed on a forested mountain ridge, how many acres of woods must be cut to support a 100MW wind project, consisting of 40-2.5MW turbines, each 460-feet tall? Account for the requirement to accommodate the “free flow of the wind” for each turbine, staging areas for construction, access roads, substations, and transmission lines. Also account for the number of miles the wind project would extend downrange, assuming five turbines per mile. Finally, account for the amount of concrete necessary to provide a sturdy base for each turbine.
- Why has steady, controllable, precision power been the basis of modern life?
- Examine four New York wind projects, asking how many permanent jobs were produced, the amount of local taxes and revenues received, and what the promises of such were beforehand?
March 31, 2010