Wind turbines are windmills that generate electricity. There are different types of turbines, but many recognize the classic white, slim, three-sail design as pictured above. Wind turbines are capable of providing pollution-free electricity and, because they are computerized, are relatively simple to operate and maintain.
When several wind turbines are built in a single area, a “wind farm” (as it is called in rural areas) is created. Illinois now has several of these wind farms in operation. When working together, the turbines of a wind farm are designed to take the place of what a traditional power plant would have provided to the grid.
Charles F. Brush
Scientists and engineers in many countries had tinkered with producing electricity using windmills since the mid-1800s. The first successful application was completed in 1888 by Charles F. Brush. Brush’s name is hardly known now, but during his time he was a pioneer of electrical applications and was Thomas Edison’s rival. In fact, Brush also established his own electric company. In 1879 his company made history in San Francisco by becoming the first to supply electricity from a power plant to a major city. He also constructed the country's first hydroelectric plant at St. Anthony Falls near Minneapolis, MN. He also worked to improve the arc light bulb (the ultra-bright lamp used in spotlights and movie projectors).
After selling his company (which later merged with Edison’s General Electric in 1891), Brush retired to Cleveland, OH where he had a mansion built. There he constructed a giant wind engine in his back yard; he used it to turn a “dynamo” (generator) that energized 408 battery cells in the basement of his mansion. It was not only the first successful automatic wind turbine, but the first home in Cleveland to run on electricity.
His turbine gained much attention, including a full article in Scientific American. The device was described as a large, Eclipse-style wind engine. The photograph to the right demonstrates its sheer size; look closely to the man pushing a lawnmower to the right of the machine. If Brush’s wind engine did nothing else, it proved that electricity generated from wind power was certainly feasible.
Poul la Cour
Poul la Cour is a name not well known in America, but “The Danish Edison” became well known for his applications of electricity that came from experiments with the wind. He was fascinated by windmills and their potential, especially when studies in Holland concluded that windmills were too inefficient for electric production.
He secured a grant from the Danish government to construct an experimental wind turbine in Askov (near the Folk High School where he taught math and science) that was completed in 1891. This turbine had four double-sided shutter sails on an open lattice-framed tower. He also established methods for storing electricity. Rather than supply the generated electricity directly to customers, he used electrolysis to separate hydrogen and oxygen from water, which was then stored in tanks. The gasses could then be used to power, among other things, combustion engines or lamps. He later developed an accumulator battery that could store electric current to be used when the wind was not blowing.
After the success of the first turbine, la Cour began construction of a traditional Danish custom windmill in 1878 that generated electricity from six specially designed sails. La Cour proved that not only could windmills produce electricity, but that traditional windmills—found all over rural Denmark—could be retrofit to bring electricity to farmers. This mill stood atop his laboratory where he tested scale-model sail designs in a wind tunnel; from those experiments, he concluded that the best turbines would have as few sails as possible to enable faster rotation (likely the reason today’s turbines have just two or three sails).
Poul la Cour established the Society of Wind Electricians - the first of its kind in the world - and held courses about wind electricity beginning in 1903. La Cour passed away in 1908, but his turbines kept turning. When the smock windmill burned down 1929, the Askov Folk High School purchased it. In 1935 the Lykkegaard test turbine was erected atop the lab building, which was converted into classrooms for the school. Dismantled in 1968, building bought in 2000 to turn into a museum.
The “Cadillac of Wind Turbines” is Jacobs, named for its founders Marcellus and Joe Jacobs. The company has been manufacturing three-rotor turbines atop lattice towers since 1928. Like Poul la Cour, their aim was to bring electricity to rural areas. But aside from being the oldest running wind turbine company, the Jacobs brand is billed to be among the more affordable and reliable wind energy systems made available to consumers. They even had their own line of snow blowers, battery-charged Hamilton Beach appliances, and an electric car!
Jacobs had its beginnings in wind engines during development, but it was realized that wind engines did not turn fast enough to power a generator. Through field tests they settled for the spring-hinged three-rotor design that we now commonly associate with utility-scale turbines. With their new design also came a redesigned fly-ball governor to keep the mill rotating steadily during inconsistent wind gusts.
The Jacobs brand sold tens of thousands of turbines in its early days from their Minnesota plant. They were not just used for farm applications; the turbines could be found at relay stations, lighthouses, and weather stations across the country. Jacobs gained world fame when Admiral Richard Byrd took a turbine with him to explore Antarctica in 1933. The turbines were small in size and power output, designed to charge a battery to power light bulbs, radios, and small appliances.
Around 1980, the company initiated a re-launch of its products. The new Florida-based company made Jacobs turbines available in a range of sizes, designed for both utility and household use. Marcellus Jacobs also helped initiate the American Wind Energy Association. Jacobs turbines can still be purchased today.
Although wind turbines were widely used to power individual homes in rural areas, large-scale production of electricity through wind turbines took considerably longer to develop. During the Great Depression, power and sewage utilities were eventually brought to rural areas of the country as a way of generating jobs and initiating economic growth in agriculture. Unfortunately, fossil fuel burning power plants led to the closure of many wind turbine and wind engine companies.
Despite the declining popularity of wind machines, research slowly continued on improving wind turbines. The first and, arguably, the most famous of these experiments was the Smith-Putnam turbine at Grandpa's Knob near Castelton, VT. When it was completed in 1941, it was the world's largest and most efficient wind turbine at a capacity of 1 Megawatt. It later proved to be too large for its own good; when one of its massive steel rotors cracked from stress, the project was abandoned so that materials could be rationed for World War II.
NASA and the U. S. Department of Energy created larger and more efficient turbines in remote areas of the country during the 1960s. But it wasn't until the first major oil crisis of the 1970s that wind power was reconsidered as a permanent alternative energy source. In Denmark and Germany, tests were conducted with different materials and styles of sails to create more efficient turbines. In fact, it was during this time that the modern utility wind turbine was developed. The slender, curved, three-sail steel and fiberglass turbines we now see across our country were first perfected by companies like Vestas in Denmark.
California became the first state to use a large number of wind turbines to supplement the power grid. At Altamont Pass, thousands of turbines ranging in size, shape, manufacturer, and age turn peacefully from oncoming Pacific winds. Jacobs wind turbines, among others, are employed here.
With recent oil crises in the 2000s, wind energy was again revisited as a permanent alternative to fossil fuels; this time, Illinois and other states invested in the construction of utility-scale turbines. When several wind turbines are spread over several acres, a “wind farm” is born (this is also their name because most turbines must be situated in the country without obstructions from buildings). Depending on the size of the farm and the turbines’ capacities, one wind farm could supply enough electricity for nearly 100,000 homes and businesses.
The first wind farm built in Illinois was Mendota Hills. 63 Gamesa turbines dot Lee County, which are visible from I-88 and I-39; but to truly appreciate their size and beauty, it is best to see them from the country roads that wind through Mendota and Paw Paw. Since 2003, tens of wind farms have been constructed in Illinois. In fact, by the end of the 2010s, more than three quarters of the states had large-scale wind turbines installed, with more being constructed.
Land is leased out by farmers who receive payment.
Construction and maintenance creates new jobs.
Excess electricity is sold to power suppliers.
Electricity generated from the turbines directly emits no pollution.
Compared to traditional power plants, turbines do not generate much electricity
It takes electricity to make electricity. Each turbine requires power to operate its computer, cooling and heating systems, and regulating controls.
Turbines generate electricity when the wind blows, but can go to waste if there is no immediate demand for that power. Conversely, traditional power plants must accommodate power loss if wind turbines are not functioning (either from maintenance or lack of wind).
Turbines have a twenty year life span.
In the past few years, a number of web sites and web logs (blogs) dedicated to wind farm opposition have been developed, highlighting the side-effects of wind farms. Alleged impacts and potential hazards of wind turbines include: lower property values; radar and radio interference; stray voltage; dead birds; shadow flickers; flinging ice in winter; a possible link to cancer; and “wind turbine syndrome,” a phrase coined by Dr. Nina Pierpont (author of the book by the same) who believes that the low frequencies generated by the turbines have adverse effects on the human body.
Unfortunately, not much is known about a turbine’s local impact because never before have turbines been constructed in such large numbers. It could take several years before we discover their long-term effects (if any). But what we do know is that wind turbines are susceptible to wind damage, fire, and brake failure as all wind-powered machines are. Fortunately, these are rare occurrences that can be prevented with proper maintenance.
Brush's giant wind "dynamo" in the back yard of his mansion in Cleveland, OH.
Photo from the Western Reserve Historical Society
Poul la Cour's laboratory, which still stands today, was also once home to a Danish smock windmill (foreground). The other windmill (background) was Poul's first turbine.
Photo from the Poul la Cour Museum
A Jacobs wind turbine.
Photo from Jacobs Wind Energy
The Smith-Putnam turbine
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
A view of the Mendota Hills wind farm in Illinois.
Photo by Tom Haskell