Turbine Turbulence: Blowin’ in the Wind
by David Blittersdorf
Vermont is currently experiencing tensions over how best to pursue development of renewable energy – despite having in place an already rigorous permitting process for larger projects. As conversations unfold between developers, clean-energy advocates, communities and state officials, it’s important to realize that the roots of large wind energy run deep in the Green Mountains, and that energy infrastructure always requires initiative from private developers, in partnership with public interests. We should recall that Vermont has a history of innovation in wind, and use the goal of becoming innovative again as a framework for our current statewide discussion.
Think of big wind turbines, and lots of places come to mind: Midwestern U.S. farmland, Denmark, and the maritime provinces of Canada, to name a few. But Vermont was home to one of the first. It’s important to remember that a landmark wind energy project was built in Vermont more than 70 years ago. Grandpa’s Knob near Rutland was the site for a 1.25MW turbine, and when it was energized in 1941, it became the first large wind turbine in the world to feed power to an electric utility (Central Vermont Public Service, just 12 years after that utility was founded).
The development and construction of the Smith-Putnam turbine was a proud feat of engineering by a private Pennsylvania manufacturer of hydro turbines. It was designed in Pennsylvania, then transported and installed atop the 2000-foot summit of Grandpa’s Knob in less than 3 years. It ran for a few months in the spring of 1945 as a standard generating unit of the CVPS electrical system, until it had mechanical problems symptomatic of the new technology. Unfortunately, WWII focused attention elsewhere, and after the war concluded, the U.S. energy economy stopped actively developing replacements for fossil fuels in favor of coal power, and then initiative to develop large-scale wind turbines lapsed until the 1970s and 1980s.
This history has personal resonance for me, because it has shaped my life. As an intrepid 12-year-old in the late 1960’s, I came across an old Vermont Life magazine article about the Smith-Putnam turbine, whose original site was a short distance from my boyhood home in Pittsford, VT. My mother encouraged me to visit the site, and think about what it meant. I became passionate about the promise of wind and solar power vs. nuclear, coal and oil, which lead to a 32-year career in renewable energy. I’ve founded two Vermont-based renewable energy companies, and I’m currently the managing partner of Georgia Mountain Community Wind, a four-turbine project in Milton and Georgia which will supply about 10% of the Burlington Electric Department’s power needs.
Why does all this matter to Vermont? Wind and solar are the major renewable resources we have on earth. Vermont was at one time a global pioneer in wind power – we now need to recapture our position as a leader. The reasons Palmer Putnam and his team of the best scientists in the U.S. decided on Vermont as their turbine’s proving ground are still valid today: great wind resources in the mountains, complementary water power generating stations, and a Yankee can-do population proud to be self-sufficient. Today as a state, we import over 90% of our energy, and much of our food, from out of state. The overwhelming majority of Vermonters share the goal of generating most of our energy from renewables and growing more of our own food. Time is short; we’ve surpassed peak oil; we must move much faster in installing wind turbines and solar systems.
For those interested in further details, photos and narrative about the Grandpa’s Knob turbine may be found on these two websites:
(includes a link to film footage of the original turbine).
David Blittersdorf is the President/CEO of AllEarth Renewables in Williston, VT — a company that specializes in the design, manufacture and installation of the grid-connected AllSun Tracker solar energy system. He is also the founder of NRG Systems in Hinesburg, VT, and the managing partner of Georgia Mountain Community Wind.