Wind Power Pioneer Interview: Bob Lynette, R. Lynette and Associates Renewable Energy Consultants
Aug. 1, 2003
Location: Sequim, WA
"Bob Lynette is a renewable energy advocate who has made a significant contribution to the wind energy industry during his more than 25 years of involvement. Bob opened his own consulting office in the '80s and performed "due diligence" work for investors. His firm was later instrumental in advancing the evolution of two-bladed teetered turbines and innovative vertical axis turbines. Beginning with his work at Boeing in the '70s and early '80s, Bob played a role in the formation of many of the early federal wind programs. Bob also served on the board of directors for the American Wind Energy Association for many years. He now continues his advocacy efforts through his consulting company." — Karen Conover, Global Energy Concepts
Tell us a little about your background and how you started working in the wind technology industry.
A. I have a mechanical engineering degree. After working for GE for three years, I moved to Seattle in 1962 to work for Boeing. I worked on environmental issues as a volunteer, and when Boeing received a contract from DOE to develop the MOD-2 wind turbine, I requested a transfer to that program. This allowed me to work with many of the folks involved with a truly pioneering industry. In 1979, I left Boeing to start a renewable energy consulting company.
Q. You've held many interesting positions in the wind industry. Can you tell us about the most interesting, the most challenging, and the most rewarding?
A. I worked on my most interesting job two years ago when I prepared an independent in-depth analysis of the U.S. electricity market for the next 20 years for a Fortune 500 company. During this time, the West Coast experienced its "mini energy crisis" and the U.S. government released its energy plan. It was amusing to compare my conclusions with the Administration's.
My most challenging job was developing the AWT two-bladed downwind wind turbine. We were pushing the state of the art and integrating the different technologies, talents, and personalities of the design team with a very limited budget. It was a real challenge (but extremely satisfying).
My most satisfying (and stressful) jobs were working in Nepal with Lotus Energy on off-grid wind energy and solar systems and in India with a joint venture partner developing wind farms using our AWT wind turbines. It's always most satisfying to help those who desperately need electricity to reduce health problems and improve their well-being.
Q. Wind energy technology, products, economics, policies, and markets have changed significantly over the years. What do you think were the most significant breakthroughs in technology and/or policy that impacted wind energy?
A. I don't think that there have been any single, striking technology breakthroughs, but rather a series of improvements in fluid mechanics (better understanding of the wind), improved aerodynamics (primarily rotor blades), and structural dynamics. We are just now catching up to two major DOE reports from the 1970s that showed us the dramatic gains in energy capture with increased heights above the ground.
As far as policy goes, we all know how sporadic the incentives for wind energy have been in the United States. It has hurt our industry in many ways, and I must admit to being a bit nationalistic—it hurts to import almost all of the wind turbines that we use here in the United States. I believe that climate change will have such dramatic business implications that we will eventually join most of the rest of the world in a serious program to reduce 2 emissions. That will lead us to implement many more "renewable energy friendly" national and global policies (assuming, of course, that Mother Nature affords us enough time to get it right).
Q. You've recently been involved with several Native American projects. What is your perspective on the opportunity for wind development on Native American lands? What obstacles will be faced?
A. The opportunities for developing wind energy on Native American lands are excellent, but we need the wisdom to do it the right way. That means understanding the Native Americans' deeper attachment to nature, understanding that there are still lingering suspicions of our intentions, and letting go of our "A" personality way of pushing too hard and too fast. If we approach things with an earnest desire to help and if we don't look for huge profits, we have an opportunity to do some good.
Q. The growth in population in the developing world compared to the developed world is dramatic. What needs to happen to establish wind as a mainstream supply option in these rapidly growing countries?
A. I think that we first need to recognize that the industrialized world has "used up" the reserve in the atmosphere and precluded rapid energy development using fossil fuels in developing countries. Such development would likely push the world into a global warming cycle that no nation could afford to let happen. So our alternative is to create global policies that provide strong financial incentives for developing countries to use renewable energy technologies. The Kyoto treaty, with its credit-trading program, is a beginning, but we will likely have to go way beyond its partial targets to survive into the next century. This is a crisis of policy, not technology, and it will likely mean a significant shift of resources to developing countries.
Q. It's been said that technology determines what "can" be done, economics determine what "should" be done, but policy determines what "will" be done. Do you agree with this as it applies to wind in the U.S. market?
A. Yes, I agree, but we need to understand that policy frequently influences the pace of technology, and policy strongly influences economics, as well as determining what will be done. So policy really influences all three factors. This has been true in the wind energy industry. Our drastic reductions of wind energy R&D since the late 1970s has certainly slowed down the development of technology and hence slowed down the reductions in the cost of a kWh. Although they work, today's heavy three-bladed wind turbines are far from elegant technological marvels—we have a long way to go. As for economics, as long as policy allows power plants and cars to spew out CO2 without internalizing the impacts, wind energy will continue to beg for legislative incentives, which is no way to run a business.
Q. You live in a beautiful part of the country that has great environmental resources, and you are an environmentalist. How do you see the balance of wind energy benefits with its environmental impacts (avian, visual, etc.)?
A. Like most things in life, we make choices. We will likely stop many wind energy projects that are visually offensive or kill birds. But those projects wouldn't have helped much to solve our energy problems in any case. They are usually near urban populations and/or in coastal areas. It may make a few folks rich, but it's really nickel and dime stuff. If we are serious about making a meaningful impact on our energy picture, we need to have a national renewable energy program similar to the space program. We need a new TVA-like program to put several hundred thousand megawatts of wind energy in the vast, windy, open areas of our country. That means lots of new transmission lines and government involvement. I don't think that the environmental impacts would stop this kind of development if we do it right. As for the Pacific Northwest where I live, we have enough wind resources and relatively sparsely populated areas to do our part.
Q. What does your crystal ball indicate about wind development in the next 10 years in the United States and in the developing world?
A. I see slow, sustained development on a scale that is nowhere near the scale required to combat global warming. My guess is that we will do very little to encourage wind energy in the United States and the developing world until we believe that our backs are up against the wall and we have no choice.
Q. If you were king, what one change would you decree or what project would you initiate that would make a difference in wind energy development?
A. I would phase in a hefty tax on CO2 emissions over 15 years.
Q. Would you like to add anything else?
A. My advice for those who might get discouraged by the slow pace of renewable development is to keep at it. Your own health and the health of the world depend on folks like you to never give up doing what is right for the planet.