EUROPEAN countries are stepping up their efforts to extract electricity from the winds that blow across their continent.
Using California's experience as a model, a new breed of "wind farmers" in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, and other countries are on course to harvest increasing quantities of pollution-free energy from huge turbines located on towers on exposed tracts of land.
In Britain, where some of Europe's strongest winds blow, commercial exploitation of wind power, after a slow start, is about to take a major step forward with the erection of a farm of 103 turbines. The total generating capacity will be 31 megawatts.
Tim Kirby, chairman of EcoGen, a British company working with Japanese industrialists, reckons that the 86-million British pound ($150-million) wind farm on a site near Powys, Wales, will be Europe's largest.
"By the end of 1993, power from the farm will account for one quarter of Britain's wind-generated electricity," Mr. Kirby says. Elsewhere in Europe enthusiasm for clean energy is becoming commonplace.
Denmark, with 320 megawatts installed capacity of wind power already, is aiming to derive 10 percent of its energy requirements from that source by the year 2000, according to government officials in Copenhagen.
The Netherlands, where picturesque windmills have twirled for centuries, pumping water and grinding corn, will rely on wind-driven turbines for 1,000 megawatts of installed capacity by the end of the century.
By that time, Italy will be pumping 600 megawatts of wind-generated electricity into its national power grid, and Greece 400 megawatts. Germany hopes to have 200 megawatts of wind power on stream by 1995.
These figures may appear small, compared with the 1,350 megawatts of power wind farms in California now produce.
The turbines in California first began turning in 1981, after the oil price shocks of the 1970s. The aim is to generate 10 percent of the state's power needs by 2005. But Europe's commitment to wind power is escalating rapidly, with governments providing tax boosts to individuals and companies willing to invest in generating equipment.
Stewart Boyle, energy policy director for the environmental organization Greenpeace, says it would be feasible to supply 10 percent of Britain's power needs by the end of the decade using a combination of wind turbines, wave power, and other "green" energy sources.
British energy officials are enthusiastic about developing a range of renewable energy resources. But in some cases the battle to erect modern-day windmills involves conflict with landowners and conservationists. This is one reason why the official target for wind-generated energy is still fairly low - 2 percent of national electricity by the year 2000.
Michael Heseltine, secretary of state for the environment in the last British government, got more than a taste of the contradictions and conflicting pressures that come into play in the pursuit of "green electricity." The trouble, he says, is that often the best places to locate wind turbines are areas of great natural beauty.
Environmentalists who appreciate the benefits of wind power have to adjust to the fact that the turbines can seem like an eyesore when sited on the high ground where winds blow strongest.
Last year developers asked Mr. Heseltine to approve the erection of 18 wind generators, each 80 feet high, on a protected wildlife estate in England's Lake District. An array of conservation groups, including Friends of the Lake District, the Open Spaces Society, and the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, immediately protested.
At first Heseltine's officials backed their objections. When he took a closer look at the protests, however, Heseltine overruled his own inspectors. He pointed out that the wind turbines would provide ozone-friendly electricity capable of supplying the needs of a town of 6,000 people.
The Council for the Protection of Rural England argues that the establishment of too many wind farms without careful regard to their siting will give the new technology a bad name. Providing 10 percent of Britain's energy needs would require more than 1,000 wind farms with a total of 20,000 turbines.
Last year, 38 new wind farms, mostly in Wales and western England, won government approval. Before Heseltine gave it the nod, the Powys project was attacked by Welsh environmentalists, who argued that its whirling turbines would spoil views of Snowdonia National Park.
Wind power in Britain was given a boost four years ago when the government ordered regional electricity companies to derive a specified amount - initially 30 megawatts - of energy from nonfossil sources. At the same time it offered investment help to companies that established wind farms.
In Denmark, too, the government has weighed in with political and financial support for wind-power projects. It began by requiring electricity-generating companies to establish wind farms. Also it encouraged local communities to purchase high-tech windmills to meet their electricity needs.
Peter Musgrove, technical director of the Wind Energy Group, Britain's biggest wind-turbine manufacturer, says the official requirement for power companies to make a wind-energy commitment has benefited the industry. He criticized the British government for failing thus far to commit itself to subsidizing wind power beyond 1998.
Mr. Musgrove says that when opponents of wind farms have the advantages pointed out to them, they often change their minds. "People with their roots in an area are usually supportive because they can see the benefits," he says. Farmers could earn money by leasing their land for use as wind farms, for example.
In the past, a drawback of wind farms has been the noise caused by the whirling blades, Musgrove says, but the latest machines are much quieter.
A public-opinion survey conducted last September for Greenpeace by the British Market Research Bureau found strong support for wind power as an energy source. Two-thirds of adults questioned said they would be prepared to pay more on their electricity bills to achieve a renewable energy target of up to 10 percent by the year 2000.