Seventy-five years ago today at 6:56 pm, the modern renewable-energy era began. On a mountain in Vermont called Grandpa’s Knob, the world’s first megawatt-scale wind turbine was connected to the electric grid, generating power for thousands in the Champlain Valley below.
But the story of Grandpa’s Knob is a cautionary tale about how hard it is to get an energy technology to commercial scale and to overcome the remaining obstacles for wind to become a truly significant tool in confronting climate change.
In the late 1930’s, Palmer Putnam, an MIT grad and Cape Cod sailor, was struck by the power of ocean breezes and bothered by high electricity rates at home. Back then, small turbines only pumped water or charged batteries. Putnam decided it was time to go big.
He joined forces with G.E. and the Morgan Smith Company to develop a break-through machine. And in October 1941, the 1.25-megawatt “Smith-Putnam” turbine was connected to the Vermont grid. It was the first time ever wind power fed the high-voltage lines of a utility system.
The turbine operated on and off for five years, facing winds up to 115 MPH. Then, in March 1945, an eight-ton blade broke from the turbine and flew 750 feet – landing on its tip. With World War II still raging, and project cost exceeding estimates, the experiment was halted.
Putnam’s team had proven big wind turbines could work technically, but without funding for a set of commercial units, they couldn’t prove they could succeed economically.
Meanwhile, other energy sources beat Putnam to the punch. Five years after Grandpa’s Knob, an Idaho nuclear reactor generated electricity for the first time. Coal-fired generation was increasingly dominant and later natural gas gave both sources a run for their money.
But the patient visionaries who followed Putnam didn’t give up. With the 1970’s energy crisis, the U.S. government backed wind-energy R&D and California entrepreneurs developed wind farms in blustery passes.
In the 1990’s, with climate change concerns rising, larger cheaper wind turbines hit the market. In the 2000’s, again with a push from government, the wind industry saw robust growth, with Texas leading the nation. And in 2015 more new megawatts of wind were added globally than any other source.
Yet today wind accounts for barely 5% of global electricity – so we’re still a long way from realizing Palmer Putnam’s dream to capture the vast energy source that he first tapped on a maple-covered mountain in Vermont.