The Answer is Blowing in the Wind
Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at a few power-generation technologies: pumped hydro, landfill gas, and nuclear. This week, we’ll examine another option that’s been in the news a lot over the past few years: wind power.
Several decades ago a cousin and I became quite interested in wind energy. Like many renewable energy advocates in the late 1970s who were intrigued by the concept of generating electricity from the wind, we set out to find and refurbish an old wind turbine. We scoured the rural countryside in southeastern Alberta, a few hours east of his family’s ranch, and found a long-out-of-service Jacobs wind generator that the rancher was willing to let us have, along with the tower. With considerable effort—and, remarkably, not a single fatality—we got the three-blade turbine down and dismantled the steel tower. After we re-erected the tower, my cousin got pretty far along rebuilding the three-kilowatt Jacobs generator before we headed back to college or whatever we were up to at the time. We never got the job done—the empty tower still stands at the family ranch—but the effort helped instill in me a lifelong interest in wind energy.
The history of using energy from the wind goes back thousands of years. Sailboats are generally considered the first use of wind power, though cooling buildings using natural ventilation might be considered an even earlier application. When we think about wind power, though, we usually focus on stationary windmills and wind turbines. The first windmills, as long ago as 500 A.D., relied on fabric sails turning a vertical shaft to pump water or grind grain.
The Dutch shifted to a “horizontal-axis” windmill technology in the late 14th Century with their “tower mill” designs that became ubiquitous in the Dutch landscape.
While some Dutch-type windmills were built in the U.S. for grinding grain, much smaller water-pumping windmills became far more common starting in the mid-19th Century. The multi-bladed water-pumpers were a familiar part of the rural American landscape, particularly in the plains states. As many as 6 million of these windmills pumped water from wells to fill livestock watering troughs and to irrigate farmland. Dempster Industries in Beatrice, Nebraska (founded in 1878) and Aermotor Windmill in San Angelo, Texas (founded in 1888) are still making these windmills for agricultural needs.
With millions of water-pumping windmills dotting America’s farmland in the early 20th Century, a new application of wind power emerged: wind turbines used to generate electricity. The first electricity-generating wind turbine was produced by Charles Brush in Cleveland, Ohio in 1888. This was a large, cumbersome system with a multi-blade rotor over 50 feet in diameter that produced 12 kilowatts (kW) of electricity—just a fraction of what comparably sized wind turbines produce today.
Dramatic advances were made both here and in Europe in the early 20th century, with blade designs that relied on aerodynamic lift—technology borrowed from airplanes. Jacobs Wind in Minneapolis, founded by brothers Joe and Marcellus Jacobs in 1927, sold more than 30,000 wind turbines to farm families through the 1950s. Jacobs’s three-blade wind turbines were mostly one to three kW in size, though the company later introduced 10- and 15-kW models. To give a sense of the value of electricity to a farm family in the 1920s and ’30s, Jacobs wind turbines sold for about $3,000 in 1930 dollars—a huge investment by today’s standards. Even more of the smaller, two-blade Wincharger wind turbines were sold during this period, though with the Rural Electrification program starting in the 1930s, sales of these gradually tapered off—until a resurgence of interest in renewable energy sources in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, Vermont played a part in the development of larger, utility-scale wind turbines. In 1941, the world’s first wind turbine larger than one megawatt (MW) was built on Grandpa’s Knob in Castleton, Vermont. Designed by Palmer Putnam and manufactured by the S. Morgan Smith Company, this 175-foot-diameter, 1.25 MW wind turbine with two blades had just 1100 hours of run time before failing, and it would take almost 40 years before another wind turbine this large was built.
Meanwhile, small wind turbines made a comeback beginning in the late 1970s and early ’80s, including by Enertech Corporation, a Norwich, Vermont company. The U.S. was the clear leader in wind power development in the early 1980s, but that technology leadership ended after President Reagan effectively terminated wind power research in the 1980s. Europeans took the lead, especially with development of large wind turbines that now dot the countryside in most European countries.
Next week, we’ll take a look at state-of-the-art wind power, the development of large wind farms, and the promise (and limitations) of wind power for the future.
- David Pill