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This article discusses wind-powered electrical generators. See windmill for wind-powered machinery used to grind grain or pump water.

A wind turbine is a rotating machine which converts the kinetic energy of wind into mechanical energy. If the mechanical energy is used directly by machinery, such as a pump or grinding stones, the machine is usually called a windmill. If the mechanical energy is instead converted to electricity, the machine is called a wind generator, wind turbine, wind power unit (WPU), wind energy converter (WEC), or aerogenerator.


Wind machines were used in Persia as early as 200 B.C. The windwheel of Heron of Alexandria marks one of the first known instances of wind powering a machine in history. However, the first practical windmills were built in Sistan, Iranmarker, from the 7th century. These were vertical axle windmills which had long vertical driveshafts with rectangle shaped blades. Made of six to twelve sail covered in reed matting or cloth material, these windmills were used to grind corn and draw up water, and were used in the gristmilling and sugarcane industries.

By the 14th century, Dutch windmills were in use to drain areas of the Rhine Rivermarker delta. In Denmarkmarker by 1900 there were about 2500 windmills for mechanical loads such as pumps and mills, producing an estimated combined peak power of about 30 MW. The first known electricity generating windmill operated was a battery charging machine installed in 1887 by James Blyth in Scotlandmarker. The first windmill for electricity production in the United States was built in Cleveland, Ohiomarker by Charles F Brush in 1888, and in 1908 there were 72 wind-driven electric generators from 5 kW to 25 kW. The largest machines were on 24 m (79 ft) towers with four-bladed 23 m (75 ft) diameter rotors. Around the time of World War I, American windmill makers were producing 100,000 farm windmills each year, most for water-pumping.By the 1930s windmills for electricity were common on farms, mostly in the United States where distribution systems had not yet been installed. In this period, high-tensile steel was cheap, and windmills were placed atop prefabricated open steel lattice towers.

A forerunner of modern horizontal-axis wind generators was in service at Yaltamarker, USSRmarker in 1931. This was a 100 kW generator on a 30 m (100 ft) tower, connected to the local 6.3 kV distribution system. It was reported to have an annual capacity factor of 32 per cent, not much different from current wind machines.In the fall of 1941, the first megawatt-class wind turbine was synchronized to a utility grid in Vermontmarker. The Smith-Putnam wind turbinemarker only ran for 1100 hours. Due to war time material shortages the unit was not repaired.

The first utility grid-connected wind turbine operated in the UK was built by John Brown & Companymarker in 1954 in the Orkney Islands. It had an 18 meter diameter, three-bladed rotor and a rated output of 100 kW.


Wind turbines locations with constantly high wind speeds bring best return on investment. With a wind resource assessment it is possible to estimate the amount of energy the wind turbine will produce.

A yardstick frequently used to determine good locations is referred to as Wind Power Density (WPD.) It is a calculation relating to the effective force of the wind at a particular location, frequently expressed in terms of the elevation above ground level over a period of time. It takes into account wind velocity and mass. Color coded maps are prepared for a particular area described, for example, as "Mean Annual Power Density at 50 Meters." The results of the above calculation are included in an index developed by the National Renewable Energy Lab and referred to as "NREL CLASS." The larger the WPD calculation, the higher it is rated by class.

Types of wind turbines

Wind turbines can rotate about either a horizontal or vertical axis, the former being more common.

Horizontal axis

Components of a horizontal axis wind turbine (gearbox, rotor shaft and brake assembly) being lifted into position
Horizontal-axis wind turbines (HAWT) have the main rotor shaft and electrical generator at the top of a tower, and must be pointed into the wind. Small turbines are pointed by a simple wind vane, while large turbines generally use a wind sensor coupled with a servo motor. Most have a gearbox, which turns the slow rotation of the blades into a quicker rotation that is more suitable to drive an electrical generator.

Since a tower produces turbulence behind it, the turbine is usually pointed upwind of the tower. Turbine blades are made stiff to prevent the blades from being pushed into the tower by high winds. Additionally, the blades are placed a considerable distance in front of the tower and are sometimes tilted up a small amount.

Downwind machines have been built, despite the problem of turbulence (mast wake), because they don't need an additional mechanism for keeping them in line with the wind, and because in high winds the blades can be allowed to bend which reduces their swept area and thus their wind resistance. Since cyclic (that is repetitive) turbulence may lead to fatigue failures most HAWTs are upwind machines.

Horizontal subtypes

12th-century windmills:
These squat structures, typically (at least) four bladed, usually with wooden shutters or fabric sails, were developed in Europe. These windmills were pointed into the wind manually or via a tail-fan and were typically used to grind grain. In the Netherlandsmarker they were also used to pump water from low-lying land, and were instrumental in keeping its polders dry.

In Schiedammarker, the Netherlandsmarker, a traditional style windmill (the Noletmolen) was built in 2005 to generate electricity. The mill is one of the tallest Tower mills in the world, being some tall.

19th-century windmills:
The Eclipse windmill factory was set up around 1866 in Beloit, Wisconsinmarker and soon became successful building mills for pumping water on farms and for filling railroad tanks. Other firms like Star, Dempster, and Aeromotor also entered the market. Hundreds of thousands of these mills were produced before rural electrification and small numbers continue to be made. They typically had many blades, operated at tip speed ratios not better than one, and had good starting torque. Some had small direct-current generators used to charge storage batteries, to provide power to lights, or to operate a radio receiver. The American rural electrification connected many farms to centrally-generated power and replaced individual windmills as a primary source of farm power by the 1950s. They were also produced in other countries like South Africa and Australia (where an American design was copied in 1876). Such devices are still used in locations where it is too costly to bring in commercial power.

Modern wind turbines
Three bladed wind turbine
Turbines used in wind farms for commercial production of electric power are usually three-bladed and pointed into the wind by computer-controlled motors. These have high tip speeds of over 320 km/h (200 miles per hour), high efficiency, and low torque ripple, which contribute to good reliability. The blades are usually colored light gray to blend in with the clouds and range in length from 20 to 40 metres (65 to 130 ft) or more. The tubular steel towers range from 60 to 90 metres (200 to 300 feet) tall. The blades rotate at 10-22 revolutions per minute. At 22 rotations per minute the tip speed exceeds 300 ft per second. A gear box is commonly used to step up the speed of the generator, although designs may also use direct drive of an annular generator. Some models operate at constant speed, but more energy can be collected by variable-speed turbines which use a solid-state power converter to interface to the transmission system. All turbines are equipped with shut-down features to avoid damage at high wind speeds.

Horizontal advantages

  • Variable blade pitch, which gives the turbine blades the optimum angle of attack. Allowing the angle of attack to be remotely adjusted gives greater control, so the turbine collects the maximum amount of wind energy for the time of day and season.
  • The tall tower base allows access to stronger wind in sites with wind shear. In some wind shear sites, every ten meters up, the wind speed can increase by 20% and the power output by 34%.
  • High efficiency, since the blades always move perpendicularly to the wind, receiving power through the whole rotation. In contrast, all vertical axis wind turbines, and most proposed airborne wind turbine designs, involve various types of reciprocating actions, requiring airfoil surfaces to backtrack against the wind for part of the cycle. Backtracking against the wind leads to inherently lower efficiency.
  • The face of a horizontal axis blade is struck by the wind at a consistent angle regardless of the position in its rotation. This results in a consistent lateral wind loading over the course of a rotation, reducing vibration and audible noise coupled to the tower or mount.

Horizontal disadvantages

  • The tall towers and blades up to 90 meters long are difficult to transport. Transportation can now cost 20% of equipment costs.
  • Tall HAWTs are difficult to install, needing very tall and expensive cranes and skilled operators.
  • Massive tower construction is required to support the heavy blades, gearbox, and generator.
  • Reflections from tall HAWTs may affect side lobes of radar installations creating signal clutter, although filtering can suppress it.
  • Their height makes them obtrusively visible across large areas, disrupting the appearance of the landscape and sometimes creating local opposition.
  • Downwind variants suffer from fatigue and structural failure caused by turbulence when a blade passes through the tower's wind shadow (for this reason, the majority of HAWTs use an upwind design, with the rotor facing the wind in front of the tower).
  • HAWTs require an additional yaw control mechanism to turn the blades toward the wind.

Cyclic stresses and vibration

Cyclic stresses fatigue the blade, axle and bearing; material failures were a major cause of turbine failure for many years. Because wind velocity often increases at higher altitudes, the backward force and torque on a horizontal-axis wind turbine (HAWT) blade peaks as it turns through the highest point in its circle. The tower hinders the airflow at the lowest point in the circle, which produces a local dip in force and torque. These effects produce a cyclic twist on the main bearings of a HAWT. The combined twist is worst in machines with an even number of blades, where one is straight up when another is straight down. To improve reliability, teetering hubs have been used which allow the main shaft to rock through a few degrees, so that the main bearings do not have to resist the torque peaks.

The rotating blades of a wind turbine act like a gyroscope. As it pivots along its vertical axis to face the wind, gyroscopic precession tries to twist the turbine disc along its horizontal axis. For each blade on a wind generator's turbine, precessive force is at a minimum when the blade is horizontal and at a maximum when the blade is vertical.

Vertical axis

Vertical-axis wind turbines (or VAWTs) have the main rotor shaft arranged vertically. Key advantages of this arrangement are that the turbine does not need to be pointed into the wind to be effective. This is an advantage on sites where the wind direction is highly variable.

With a vertical axis, the generator and gearbox can be placed near the ground, so the tower doesn't need to support it, and it is more accessible for maintenance. Drawbacks are that some designs produce pulsating torque.

It is difficult to mount vertical-axis turbines on towers, meaning they are often installed nearer to the base on which they rest, such as the ground or a building rooftop. The wind speed is slower at a lower altitude, so less wind energy is available for a given size turbine. Air flow near the ground and other objects can create turbulent flow, which can introduce issues of vibration, including noise and bearing wear which may increase the maintenance or shorten the service life. However, when a turbine is mounted on a rooftop, the building generally redirects wind over the roof and this can double the wind speed at the turbine. If the height of the rooftop mounted turbine tower is approximately 50% of the building height, this is near the optimum for maximum wind energy and minimum wind turbulence.

Vertical subtypes

Darrieus wind turbine
"Eggbeater" turbines, or Darrieus turbines, were named after the French inventor, Georges Darrieus. They have good efficiency, but produce large torque ripple and cyclic stress on the tower, which contributes to poor reliability. Also, they generally require some external power source, or an additional Savonius rotor, to start turning, because the starting torque is very low. The torque ripple is reduced by using three or more blades which results in a higher solidity for the rotor. Solidity is measured by blade area over the rotor area. Newer Darrieus type turbines are not held up by guy-wires but have an external superstructure connected to the top bearing.

A helical twisted VAWT.
Giromill: A subtype of Darrieus turbine with straight, as opposed to curved, blades. The cycloturbine variety has variable pitch to reduce the torque pulsation and is self-starting. The advantages of variable pitch are: high starting torque; a wide, relatively flat torque curve; a lower blade speed ratio; a higher coefficient of performance; more efficient operation in turbulent winds; and a lower blade speed ratio which lowers blade bending stresses. Straight, V, or curved blades may be used.

Savonius wind turbine
These are drag-type devices with two (or more) scoops that are used in anemometers, Flettner vents (commonly seen on bus and van roofs), and in some high-reliability low-efficiency power turbines. They are always self-starting if there are at least three scoops. They sometimes have long helical scoops to give a smooth torque.

Vertical advantages

  • A massive tower structure is less frequently used, as VAWTs are more frequently mounted with the lower bearing mounted near the ground.
  • Designs without yaw mechanisms are possible with fixed pitch rotor designs.
  • The generator of a VAWT can be located nearer the ground, making it easier to maintain the moving parts.
  • VAWTs have lower wind startup speeds than HAWTs. Typically, they start creating electricity at 6 m.p.h. (10 km/h).
  • VAWTs may be built at locations where taller structures are prohibited.
  • VAWTs situated close to the ground can take advantage of locations where mesas, hilltops, ridgelines, and passes funnel the wind and increase wind velocity.
  • VAWTs may have a lower noise signature.

Vertical disadvantages

  • A VAWT that uses guy-wires to hold it in place puts stress on the bottom bearing as all the weight of the rotor is on the bearing. Guy wires attached to the top bearing increase downward thrust in wind gusts. Solving this problem requires a superstructure to hold a top bearing in place to eliminate the downward thrusts of gust events in guy wired models.
  • The stress in each blade due to wind loading changes sign twice during each revolution as the apparent wind direction moves through 360 degrees. This reversal of the stress increases the likelihood of blade failure by fatigue.
  • While VAWTs' parts are located on the ground, they are also located under the weight of the structure above it, which can make changing out parts nearly impossible without dismantling the structure if not designed properly.
  • Having rotors located close to the ground where wind speeds are lower due to wind shear, VAWTs may not produce as much energy at a given site as a HAWT with the same footprint or height.

Turbine design and construction

Components of a horizontal-axis wind turbine

Wind turbines are designed to exploit the wind energy that exists at a location. Aerodynamic modeling is used to determine the optimum tower height, control systems, number of blades{fact|april 2009} and blade shape.

Wind turbines convert wind energy to electricity for distribution. Conventional horizontal axis turbines can be divided into three components.
  • The rotor component, which is approximately 20% of the wind turbine cost, includes the blades for converting wind energy to low speed rotational energy.
  • The generator component, which is approximately 34% of the wind turbine cost, includes the electrical generator, the control electronics, and most likely a gearbox component for converting the low speed incoming rotation to high speed rotation suitable for generating electricity.
  • The structural support component, which is approximately 15% of the wind turbine cost, includes the tower and rotor yaw mechanism.

Unconventional wind turbines

One E-66 wind turbine at Windpark Holtriemmarker, Germany, carries an observation deck, open for visitors. Another turbine of the same type, with an observation deck, is located in Swaffhammarker, Englandmarker.

A series of lighter-than-air wind turbines are in development in Canada by Magenn Power. They deliver power to the ground by a tether system.

Wind turbines may also be used in conjunction with a large vertical solar updraft tower to extract the energy due to air heated by the sun. Or as part of wave powered generators where air displaced by waves drives turbines.

Small wind turbines

Small wind turbines may be as small as a fifty-watt generator for boat or caravan use. Small units often have direct drive generators, direct current output, aeroelastic blades, lifetime bearings and use a vane to point into the wind. Larger, more costly turbines generally have geared power trains, alternating current output, flaps and are actively pointed into the wind. Direct drive generators and aeroelastic blades for large wind turbines are being researched.

Record-holding turbines

The world's largest turbines are manufactured by the Northern Germanmarker companies Enercon and REpower. The Enercon E-126 delivers up to 6 MW, has an overall height of 198 m (650 ft) and a diameter of 126 meters (413 ft). The Repower 5M delivers up to 5 MW, has an overall height of 183 m (600 ft) and has a diameter of 126 m (413 ft).

The Turbine with the lowest cut in rating is the RePower MM92 at 3m/s, cuts out at 24m/s and can produce 2.05MW.

The turbine closest to the North Polemarker is a Nordex N-80 in Havøygavlen near Hammerfestmarker, Norwaymarker. The turbines currently operating closest to the South Polemarker are two Enercon E-30 in Antarcticamarker, used to power the Australian Research Division's Mawson Stationmarker, although a modified HR3 turbine from Northern Power Systems operated at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Stationmarker in 1997 and 1998.

Matilda was a wind turbine located on Gotlandmarker, Swedenmarker. It produced a total of 61.4 GW·h in the 15 years it was active. That is more renewable energy than any other single wind power turbine had ever produced to that date. It was demolished on June 6, 2008.

The world's highest wind turbine made by DeWind is located in the Andes, Argentina around above sea level. The site uses a type D8.2 - 2000 kW / 50 Hz turbine. This turbine has a new drive train concept with a special torque converter (WinDrive) made by Voith and a synchronous generator. The WKA was put into operation in December 2007 and has supplied the local gold mine with electricity since then.

See also


  1. A.G. Drachmann, "Heron's Windmill", Centaurus, 7 (1961), pp. 145-151
  2. Dietrich Lohrmann, "Von der östlichen zur westlichen Windmühle", Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, Vol. 77, Issue 1 (1995), pp.1-30 (10f.)
  3. Ahmad Y Hassan, Donald Routledge Hill (1986). Islamic Technology: An illustrated history, p. 54. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42239-6.
  4. Donald Routledge Hill, "Mechanical Engineering in the Medieval Near East", Scientific American, May 1991, p. 64-69. (cf. Donald Routledge Hill, Mechanical Engineering)
  5. Quirky old-style contraptions make water from wind on the mesas of West Texas
  6. Alan Wyatt: Electric Power: Challenges and Choices. Book Press Ltd., Toronto 1986, ISBN 0-920650-00-7
  7. Kansas Wind Energy Project, Affiliated Atlantic & Western Group Inc, 5250 W 94th Terrace, Prairie Village, Kansas 66207
  8. Wind turbine components retrieved November 8, 2008
  9. Molendatabase Dutch text
  10. Texas
  11. Extract from Triumph of the Griffiths Family,, Bruce Millett, 1984, accessed January 26, 2008
  12. 1.5 MW Wind Turbine Technical Specifications
  13. Size specifications of common industrial wind turbines
  16. "Wind Turbine Design Cost and Scaling Model," Technical Report NREL/TP-500-40566, December, 2006, page 35,36.
  17. Magenn Power Inc. - Technology
  18. see and scroll down to SPERBOY™,
  19. Mawson Station Electrical Energy - Australian Antarctic Division
  20. Bill Spindler, The first Pole wind turbine.

Further reading

  • BBC News,"Wind farms 'must take root in UK",, BBC News, Copyright 2007
  • Tony Burton, David Sharpe, Nick Jenkins, Ervin Bossanyi: Wind Energy Handbook, John Wiley & Sons, 1st edition (2001), ISBN 0-471-48997-2
  • Darrell, Dodge, Early History Through 1875, TeloNet Web Development,, Copyright 1996-2001
  • David, Macaulay, New Way Things Work, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Copyright 1994-1999, pg.41-42
  • myths vs. facts sheet

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