In March of 2016, I bushwacked to the top of Grandpa’s Knob in Castleton, VT to the site of the world’s first megawatt scale wind turbine: the Smith Putnam turbine. Built in 1941, it was a 1.25 MW turbine, downwind, two bladed, with yaw, pitch, and coning (think of a palm tree in a high wind) control. The coning control and the megawatt scale made this a truly pioneering project for the wind industry 75 years ago. Listen for more details and follow my Instagram page @winddriventravels for pictures from my journey thus far in wind! More pictures from this historic place below.
Producer’s Note: My apologies on the coughing and rough voice through this – I had a 104 degree fever sustained for a couple days before recording this. Might have been not the greatest idea to take a hike – but oh was it worth it. Also, the lake I refer to in the episode is Lake Champlain. I would have mentioned that in the moment, but I was a bit loopy, and way overwhelmed at the history of the spot where I was standing. Public disclaimer: If you do try to visit this spot, please do not trespass on private property to get there. Also, be sure to bring a compass which you know how to use, and know how to take a destination. Always a good idea when going for a bushwack in the woods with few landmarks. Enjoy!
Source: Putnam, Palmer Cosslett. Power From the Wind. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1948. Print.

In this episode I delve into the history of the wind vane and its continuing relevance today.

Source: Watson, Lyall. Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind. New York: Morrow, 1984. 76-77. Print.

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I try a little thought experiment, thinking about global wind patterns through the lens of music.

Until next time, may the wind be ever in your favor!


In episode 2 we discuss the two main drivers of wind, as well as the three forces steering…wait a second, the drivers aren’t steering?!?

Drivers of wind:

1) Uneven heating of the earth by the sun, where the equator receives more direct sunlight than the north and south poles and in therefore warmer

2) Pressure gradient force: the process by which high pressure air moves to areas of lower pressure

Forces steering the wind:

  1. The Coriolis Effect: as the earth turns the wind is bent or deflected from its intended path as it tries to approach the equator
  2. Topography: the variations in earth’s surface that include oceans, deserts, mountains, valleys, etc.
  3. Soil composition: some soils radiate more heat into the atmosphere (sands are one example) depending on their makeup, be they sandy, clay, or rocky, etc.



Watson, Lyall. Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind. New York: Morrow, 1984. 27-39. Print.

After a long hiatus, I am bringing this blog back online and charting a new direction with it. This page will now host the WindDriven podcast! It’s a project I’ve been working on for a long time, and I am excited to be able to share it with you all. This podcast will explore the incredible history of the wind, the people who have interacted with it, and how it has powered generations past and present.

This blog will be where you can find show notes, links and anything else not covered on the WindDriven podcast page on SoundCloud.

So until next time, may the wind be ever in your favor!


Earlier this summer I saw a documentary film called Switch as the film’s director and producer toured through the Northeast promoting the movie. Before the show I visited the Switch Energy Project’s website and found dozens of informative and insightful clips on the pros and cons of every current and future energy source on the planet, so I was thoroughly intrigued to see the movie. I was not disappointed.

Switch is not the first energy documentary to ever be made, and it most certainly won’t be the last. What make’s Switch stand out is the combination of its objectivity and its comprehensive look inside the wide world of energy. Many films about energy come with an agenda, some are pushing for an all renewable energy future, others are touting fossil fuels. But when you eliminate those agendas from a documentary, you allow for all the “grey areas” to collide for the viewer, which is enormously important when talking about the complex world of energy. There are no “silver bullets” to solve our climate crisis, energy security issues, or grid concerns, instead we must use “silver buckshot” (i.e. we must use a wide array of solutions to solve these problems, to paraphrase Bill McKibben). And when we acknowledge every energy source’s caveats and the scale of the challenges at hand, then we can make informed decisions about where we want our energy paths to lead us collectively.

It should be no surprise that humans globally have an insatiable appetite for energy and that our demand is growing rapidly. However, surprisingly few people understand how their energy is produced or where it comes from. For a society that is so deeply dependent on reliable access to affordable electricity to run our modern lives, we all ought to have a broader and more thorough grasp on our relationship with energy. Thankfully, public education is front and center in the mission of Switch. This film is a great first step to learning more about energy and how we as a society can face the many challenges which will affect our future. I highly recommend you go see it.

See the trailer below and visit http://www.switchenergyproject.com/screenings.php to find a showing near you (or to request/host a screening of Switch):


(Image and trailer both from www.switchenergyproject.com)

As Hurricane Sandy moved along the Atlantic coast last week and approached landfall, there was preparatory action on the federal, state, and local level. Citizens were evacuating, boarding up windows, National Guard troops were being deployed to assist in rescues and cleanup, and utilities were preparing their crews to deal with power outages to millions of people (post-storm now, its being reported that 7.5 million people are without power). Elsewhere however, worries were growing for 16 nuclear power plans which would be in Hurricane Sandy’s path¹.

In a deja-vue moment bringing us back to March of 2011, when a massive earthquake and tsunami first threatened the integrity of the Fukashima nuclear reactor, then knocked out backup power and caused a meltdown, we find ourselves worrying about the consequences of nuclear power plants in the face of natural disasters. Due to federal policy decisions over the years regarding spent fuel rods and the cooling needs of nuclear fuel, nuclear power plants in the US must have reliable backup power (usually diesel generators) to circulate water to cool both active nuclear fuel and spent fuel rods. The consequences of a nuclear meltdown (partial or full) are severe for the surrounding region, as we remember from Fukashima this included discharges of radioactive water, releases of radioactive isotopes out miles from the facility, and the evacuation of entire communities, farms, and businesses. Not every source of power comes with this level of consequences when mechanical failures arise in the face of nature’s fury. One energy source has even been proving that it can survive such natural disasters.

In the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused so much devastation across the nation, Japanese wind turbines survived nearly unscathed².  In an article published in The Huffington Post, Yoshinori Ueda confirmed with Japan Wind Energy Association members that there had “been no wind facility damage reported…from either the earthquake or the tsunami.” Citing only a grid failure (which prevented three wind farms from coming online but was outside their operators’ control) Kelly Rigg wrote at the time, “Mr. Ueda confirms that most Japanese wind turbines are fully operational.” Utilities in Japan were even asking wind farms to ramp up their generating capacity to offset the dearth of energy elsewhere in the country.

Fast-forward to late August 2011 as Hurricane Irene makes landfall in North Carolina and heads North. The storm began as a Category 1 Hurricane with winds gusting to 86 mph but quickly was downgraded to tropical storm status, however still caused over $15 billion in damage. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) contacted 7 wind turbine operators who had a total of 74 turbines (172 MW of generating capacity) in the path of Irene to see how the technology had performed in the face of hurricane and tropical storm winds³. These turbines were spread across 7 states (Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine). Turbines in Delaware and New Jersey experienced the strongest winds from Irene (as it was still a Category 1) and were shut down prior to the storm’s arrival due to local grid orders, however none of them suffered any damage. At the Portsmouth Abbey School in Portsmouth, Rhode Island their 660 kW Vestas turbine recorded a maximum gust of 66 mph before a local grid outage caused the turbine to enter automatic shutdown. Brother  Joseph at the Portsmouth Abbey School commented on their turbine’s performance later, noting:

“Our turbine worked just as expected during Irene. It generated until just after landfall at which point the grid went down and the turbine automatically locked itself down. It remained in this state throughout the rest of the storm. The turbine went back on line 24 hours later when utility power was restored.”

Brother Joseph also mentioned that this was not the first time their turbine has persevered in high wind conditions:

“During its first year of operation, the highest documented wind gust was 67 mph.  The turbine generates wind up to 55 mph, then pitches the blades to 90-degree angles and waits for the wind to subside to 45 mph before starting to turn again.”

Turbines in Massachusetts town of Hull performed similarly to those at the Portsmouth Abbey School, entering automatic shutdown once winds rose above the cut-out speed for their turbines (52 mph in their case). In Searsberg, Vermont a turbine installation of 11 550kW Zond turbines weathered Tropical Storm Irene’s wrath which is impressive given the extensive flooding that occurred across much of the state. A representative of the developer on site, Green Mountain Power had this to say: “They certainly survived.”…”The turbines generated during Hurricane Irene, although for a few hours when the wind speed exceeded the limits, the turbines shut themselves down as designed. They started up again when wind speeds were within generating range. They did just fine.”

Wind power operators in New Hampshire and Maine reported that their turbines too were also unscathed by the storm. Through these examples of natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes) wind turbines are emerging as what some are calling “battle proof.” At the end of the day, in each of these instances the technology operated just as designed by powering down at the onset of a grid outage or winds above the cut-out speed, preventing damage to the installation and protecting electrical workers trying to fix downed power lines in the aftermath.

But accidents do happen, as they can with any form of power generation. What happens when a turbine fails to “cut-out” when winds gust past its ideal range? In the wind industry this is known as “over-speed” and this can lead to the rotor curving increasingly closer to the tower with each revolution. If the turbine over-speeds for too long the rotor can clip the tower, damaging the blade or in some cases causing a tower collapse. In other instances over-speeding of the rotor can cause too much strain on the gearbox and/or generator either of which could suffer a mechanical failure or  (in the generator’s case) catch fire. While all of these events would be catastrophic for the turbine itself, it should be noted that events like these are rare and when they do occur, the extend of the damage is limited to the footprint of the turbine for the most part. This is not something nuclear power plants can claim if they suffer a mechanical failure or storm damage.

Ultimately the wind energy industry has much to be proud of for building reliable turbine installations that can survive natural disasters with flying colors. In an increasingly climate changed world, we will likely be relying more and more upon zero emission wind energy to power us safely, through weather events none of us have ever seen before. As the Mid-Atlantic states and New England continue to recover and rebuild communities after Hurricane Sandy it will be interesting to hear how wind turbines across the Northeast weathered this most recent meteorological test.

¹ http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/nuclear-trouble-16-reactors-path-hurricane-sandy

² http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-rigg/battleproof-wind-farms-su_b_837172.html

³ http://blog.cleanenergy.org/2011/09/06/hurricane-irene-and-its-impact-on-wind-farms/