What is a Wind Power Turbine?

Brendan McGuigan

A wind power turbine is a large rotating machine that is able to harness the energy of the wind and turn it into a form that can be used by people. Historically, the most common type of wind power turbine was the windmill, which changed wind energy into direct mechanical energy, which could then be used for simple tasks like grinding grain. The modern wind power turbine tends to be a wind generator or wind energy converter, and is able to turn wind energy into electricity, which can then be transported over power lines to be used by individuals far from the location of the turbines themselves.

Windsmills existed as early as the 7th century.
Windsmills existed as early as the 7th century.

The earliest known wind power turbine dates from the 2nd century BCE in Persia, and was a very rudimentary design. By the 7th century, something approximating the windmill had been developed, and it spread throughout the world. This type of wind power turbine was used to turn mills for grinding grains, and also to operate pumps, allowing fresh water to be drawn up from the ground. Perhaps the most iconic uses of the windmill were in the Netherlands, where they were widely adopted by the 14th century to do everything from running gristmills to transporting water.

A wind power turbine.
A wind power turbine.

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In America around World War I, the windmill was very common, with farmers using them throughout the country to operate small pumps to water their crops. By World War II, a more modern wind power turbine design had spread around the country, and was used to generate electricity. Since the modern electrical grid had not yet been created, people living in rural areas who wanted to take advantage of the many electrical devices being developed had to come up with an alternate source of energy, and the wind power turbine was cheap and easy to install.

The modern wind power turbine is not that much different from a historical windmill, although it looks much sleeker and more aerodynamic. The most common type of turbine is a three-bladed horizontal-axis turbine, facing straight into the wind. Unlike vertical-axis turbines, horizontal-axis turbines are able to generate power through their entire rotation, never moving against the wind.

Although turbines can be quite simple, most modern turbines have a number of advanced features to make them function more efficiently. For example, most are able to be remotely adjusted, so that entire fields of turbines can be shifted slightly to make the best use of oncoming wind. Many modern designs also make use of variable-speed turbines, allowing them to shift their resistance and speed depending on the strength of the wind, and making them more efficient. Additionally, most modern designs also have emergency shutoff features, to ensure that they are not broken in extremely high-speed winds.

Some controversy has been raised by the increased use of wind power as a major energy source. Many people object to the aesthetic aspects of the massive turbines, which can fill large spaces and may be visible from very far away. To address this, most turbines are a gray color, meant to blend in with clouds, but they are still quite visible against clear blue skies. There is also some concern about the environmental impacts of turbines, with many people arguing that birds and other flying wildlife may be impacted by the presence of fields of wind turbines.

The power generated by a wind power turbine may be transported over power lines.
The power generated by a wind power turbine may be transported over power lines.

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