What can the Sydney to Hobart race, that iconic duel of racing yachts down Australia's east coast held every Boxing Day since 1945, tell us about the possible improvements yet to be wrenched from wind power?
This is a race where money is a minor object and where owners will take large risks to be the first over the line. It combines disdain for cost with leading edge technology so has to be at one of the pinnacles of windpower.
Optimists claim that renewable energy will be much cheaper than fossil-fueled energy at some stage in the future because of projected technological improvements. This is a flawed argument for two reasons. It assumes that fossil-fueled power won't also experience technological improvements, and that the limits of physics are almost infinitely accommodating.
The history of the race suggests that we are likely to be close to the limits of windpower. Sailing ships and windmills, basically the same thing, are one of our oldest forms of energy generation, having been used continuously for thousands of years, right up until the present. So we are dealing with a relatively mature technology.
However, as the graph of the winning times over the history of the race shows, even very robust technology can be transformed with modern materials and know-how.
There are three different phases in the evolution of the race.
When it first started in 1945 it was more or less a bit of fun amongst a few mates. The line honours time of 6 days, 14 hours and 22 minutes didn't stand for long. Times declined fairly quickly over the next 30 years with Kialoa blitzing it in 1975 with a time of 2 days, 14 hours, 36 minutes and 56 seconds, a 60.46% increase in efficiency over the first result.
This efficiency gain is probably overstated, because the race is highly dependant on the weather. So the 1948 result of Morna of 4 days, 5 hours, 1 minute and 21 seconds is probably a better comparison, producing an efficiency gain of 38.02%.
Kialoa is more or less the start of the second phase which lasts up until 1998. This sees a slightly higher level of competition, with the results for the winner sitting within a narrower channel than the first phase.
Nokia was the winner in 1999, when she sets a new race record of 1 day, 19 hours, 48 minutes and 2 seconds, an efficiency gain of 30.05%. This is the beginning of the modern era, which sees a narrowing in the range between fastest times, but what looks to be a floor under them.
The current record is a further improvement of 24.07% on the 1999 record, but this would appear to be weather rather than technology. As the ABC reports:
Millions of dollars have been poured into the top Sydney to Hobart contenders.
The elite contenders in this race are highly evolved racing machines. No expense has been spared, from the tip of the mainsail to the bottom of its canting keel.
But Witt gives technology no credit for the first three boats home beating the race record by hours.
"To be honest, zero," he said.
"It was 100 per cent wind direction and wind strength.
"We could have had those conditions 10 years ago, we would have done the same thing."
So, despite the technological changes in the last 20 years, little has changed in terms of output, and at what cost?
It's not easy to find out the cost of super maxis, but it seems that the 2011 winner Investec Loyal cost $6,152,355 when originally bought in 2006, but has been substantially modified since, so who knows what the real cost is. Last year's winner, LDV Comanche reputedly cost $15 million with most of her modifications in front of her.
And what do you get for that? A boat which transports a crew of somewhere around 16-29 at an absolute best speed, in the best year of 18.88 knots, but more likely to be in the realm of 11 to 12 knots.
That's a capital cost of around $500,000 per passenger, and about $40,000 per passenger per knot.
By comparison a cruise ship gets 21 to 24 knots, for $260 million you can purchase one that moves 500 people, a capital cost of $520,000, but for twice the speed, so $24, 762 per passenger per knot. At the largest end the capital cost is $262,000 per passenger and $12,476 per passenger per knot.
So to be anywhere as efficient as the diesel electric craft the super-maxis would need a 400% improvement in return on cost, and that is discounting that in a cruise ship you get a reasonable berth, dining facilities, bars, night clubs, pools, and need I go on?
To add insult to injury, Wild Oats also has a diesel engine which has to be used anytime it is sailing. This runs the canting keel, and substitutes for men on the coffee grinders raising and lowering sails!
To equal the performance of a cruise ship, a super-maxi would need to do the Sydney to Hobart trip in around 30 hours at a speed of 21 knots. This doesn't ever seem likely as, while super-maxis can do more than 33 knots in the right wind conditions, they have to be right.
Happy to revisit this post in 10 years, and see whether anything changes, but my guess is that the days of hundreds of percent gains in efficiency are over for wind, and that while some incremental improvements might be wrung out it will be small percentages.
I think the same is also likely to be true for wind turbines. Physics and budgets are not infinitely elastic.