When wind power got big

You can read the first part of this story - the early history of wind power - if you want, or skip that and treat this as a stand alone post.

If we want to pinpoint the moment wind got big, we should start in the USSR. In 1931, the Soviets built a 100kW, 100 foot turbine in Yalta. To put that in some context, the turbines Joe and Marcellus Jacobs were pushing out at their factory in Minnesota around the same time were just 1.5 to 3 kilowatts. There were bigger ones, but this was still a whole new magnitude.

I’d love to know more about this turbine - if anyone has any tips, do send them over. I just know it was weirdly big for its time, and reportedly ran well for a good decade.

Over in the US, a man called Palmer Putman figured he could better. Ten times better even - the first megawatt.

The story of Putnam’s massive turbine is a good one, but not exactly illustrious. An MIT trained geologist, Putman had no particular background in generating electricity. But he had ambition, he was charming, and he was well-connected enough to raise some cash and interest. Before long, his 1250kW turbine was taking shape on top of a mountain in Vermont named Grandpa’s Knob (British people: stop sniggering).

As Alexis Madrigal explains, this was a huge undertaking. The turbine’s tower came from a bridge builder in Pennsylvania, where the blades were also built, but then everything was put together in Ohio before being shipped to Vermont (some great photos at the Wind-Works website). It was too heavy for local roads, so they had to temporarily reinforce bridges. It took 10 hair-raising trips, and even then they were just at the bottom of the mountain - reaching the top was another two thousand feet trek. And there was no road. So they had to build one. Finally it was all there, and assembled.

On October 19th, 1941 it fed electricity into the grid. As Time magazine exclaimed (a little pre-emptively, a month before): “Slowly, like the movements of an awakening giant, two stainless-steel vanes — the size and shape of a bomber’s wings — began to rotate” and Vermont’s mountain winds were harnessed to generate electricity for its homes and factories.

But a bearing broke in 1943, and by then, American engineers had other troubles to be dealing with. So for another two years, Puttnam’s turbine just sat still, on top of Grandpa’s Knob, while the world went to war.

Finally, in 1945, someone found enough time, and it was switched back on again. And it promptly broke again. After 1100 hours of operation, a blade fell off, sailing 750 feet through the night and knocking Perry off his feet.

Speedily dubbed the Blade that Failed, congressional hearings in 1951 cited it as reason to write off the tech altogether. Putnam himself turned away from wind too - arguing instead for nuclear and solar - and today, a phone tower stands on the top of Grandpa’s Knob. Still, the the company that bankrolled the project put the patents in the public domain and got Putnam to write a book detailing everything that happened - making the whole experiment open for future generations. As Madrigal argues, this helped other engineers to built on Putnam’s vision, and be inspired by him, and it’s referenced in a 1974 Nasa report on alternative energies. That blade might have failed, but it failed well. 

Roll on a few decades and the oil dramas of the 1970s brought many back to wind. There were enthusiasts who picked up the smaller DIY options for living off grid - check out the archives of people’s tech magazine Undercurrents for some some of the more radical ends of this. But there were also large, government-funded projects aimed which wanted to develop the idea of a megawatt-class turbine and compete with fossil fuels.

As Jakob Whitfield notes, in the US and Germany such projects often applied the skills of aerospace contractors, not always successfully. They knew about the flow of air, after all, surely all this military tech work of the cold war could be applied to energy? But in practise, these aeronautical engineers still had a lot to learn - they’d underestimate the different turbulent airflows around the turbines, so many of the designs only ran for only short periods, if at all.

Still, the tech push of the 1970s wasn’t nothing. There was that 1974 Nasa report that had dug up Puttnam’s old vision, and the world’s first wind farm opened in New Hampshire in 1980.

If you want a flavour of enthusiasm for growing wind power in the US at the time, there’s a great 1981 Nasa video with some fascinating interviews with people doing more experimental work in Rhode Island. There had been some problems with television interference, so they had to turn the blades off during prime time and then by everyone cable TV. But the vox pops suggested the local people seemed keen on the tech - it’d offer them independence from the “foreign oil” everyone was worrying about at the time and, as the voiceover reminded audiences - there were environmental benefits too.

Back in Denmark, the government supported small-scale craft producers, which would use off-the-shelf parts like bits of trucks, rooted in designs developed by la Cour offshoots in the 1950. They also created a national turbine test centre, which speedily became a hub for sharing tips and knowledge. If you wanted tax credits, you had to be approved there and as Whitfield puts it: “Together with the Danish Wind Turbine Owners Association, they provided a useful grassroots exchange for cross-fertilizing design ideas, in contrast to the insular high-tech companies operating elsewhere.”

Generous tax incentives in California in the 1980s led to a mini-wind rush in that part of the world, and Danish manufactures were particularly well placed to capture a chunk of that market. A few went bankrupt when the tax policies changed, but the largest - like Vestas, or Bonus Energy, which was later sold to Siemens - were offered a substantial boost. In Denmark itself, concerns around the Chernobyl disaster also strengthened calls for wind power from the anti-nuclear movement.

And then, in 1991, Denmark gave the world its first offshore wind farm. Though it took until last year for one to be opened in the US, several other European countries followed Denmark’s lead pretty fast - Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and, in particular, the UK - as well as China, South Korea and Japan.

One of the many interesting things about Danish wind is how much of it is community-owned. Throughout the 20th century, they maintained a very decentralised energy system, with a lot of heat and power owned by municipalities and communities. They even have community owned offshore wind - managing to keep some of the community connection with wind power of earlier eras, even as they move into the larger, more expensive types of tech that you really can’t DIY out of bits of old agricultural equipment.

In contrast, according the Labour Energy Forum’s recent report Who Owns the Wind, just 0.07% of the British offshore wind fleet is owned by UK public entities - a single wind turbine off the coast of Levenmouth, between Edinburgh and Dundee.

In this post and the last one, we’ve traced the history of wind-power from offering new opportunities for middle classes in medieval Europe to lighting up the mansions of rich inventors in 19th century Cleveland, then on to isolated Danish farms, ranches in Montana, to Antarctica, and the first megawatt before, finally, the rise of offshore wind farms. Wind has a proud history of giving power to people who otherwise wouldn’t, and giving them more personal control over their electrical supply. For all that wind power has played a key role in decentralised energy systems and people living outside of grid connections, today it competes with nuclear and fossil fuels as a grid supplier. It might still have some hippie associations in the 1970s, the technology can be applied to a range of different ideological ends.

Looking to the future of wind power, it’s pretty safe to predict it’ll get a lot cheaper, in some places it’ll get bigger and, with developments in battery storage making it more and more viable, we’ll see a lot more turbines popping up, in all sorts of places. Where I live in England, onshore wind is slightly weirdly blocked, but even that’ll go, eventually.

These changes in wind power are coming at us pretty fast. An auction in Germany last week put the price of onshore wind at half what the EU’s had expected to see by 2030. But it’s still not as fast as it needs to be to tackle climate change. And if we’re going to achieve the rapid transition we need to keep the planet at some sort of human-friendly temperature, we’ll need to find ways to ensure the public come with us. It’s a total myth that wind power is unpopular, but I worry that as it grows - if it grows without public engagement - it will become so and that’ll backfire on plans to get carbon out of our electricity system.

We've come a long way from the villagers of Maykirk, back in the 1880s, turning down James Blyth's mysterious electric light as "the work of the devil." Still, we could may more attention to that - and other - lessons from wind power's history. 


Seasonal plug: If you’re a big fan of wind power (see what I did there?) why not buy some of these lovely xmas cards? Proceeds to 10:10, a charity supporting public engagement with climate action (the one I work for in my day-job), including a campaign to lift the block on onshore wind in England.