Grandpa’s Knob and the beginning of wind power

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(Host) As VPR continues to explore Great Thoughts of Vermont, commentator Dan Reicher recalls a visionary project on a windy Vermont hillside that ushered in a new era of energy technology.

(Reicher) It’s little known that Vermont is where the modern wind power industry was born more than 60 years ago. On a hill-top near Rutland called Grandpa’s Knob, the world’s first large-scale wind turbine generated enough electricity to power about a thousand Vermont homes for a brief period during WWII. A leading engineering textbook calls the project the inspiration for today’s modern wind turbine.

Palmer Putnam, an MIT-trained engineer and Albert Cree, President of Central Vermont Public Service, believed that, if properly designed and operated, wind turbines could generate large quantities of electricity at competitive costs. Putnam led a team of top engineers from MIT, G.E. and the Morgan Smith Company, which developed the path-breaking machine.

Cree was the project’s practical Yankee. He needed to supplement the power in his existing CVPS hydroelectric system and he recognized the potential for wind power to meet this need. He was willing to make the necessary investment if the technology worked, and he had a good site. At 2000 feet Grandpa’s Knob was high enough to catch the wind but not so high to be plagued by icing.

On October 19, 1941, after several years of development, the turbine started up in a gusty northeast wind, the first time anywhere in the world that power from the wind was fed into the high voltage wires of a utility system. The turbine operated on and off for four years, withstanding winds up to 115 miles per hour. In 1945 a metal connector cracked causing one of the eight ton blades to be tossed 750 feet, landing on its tip. Vermonter Harold Perry in the control room was thrown to the floor but quickly reached the control panel and shut the turbine down.

Although successful by certain measures, the Grandpa’s Knob turbine did not immediately stimulate a major wind power industry. In the 1940’s coal-generated electricity took off. Nuclear power followed in the 1960’s. Albert Cree himself lead the charge for Vermont Yankee. Not until the energy crisis of the 1970’s did wind resurface as an option. And it was only in the 1990’s, with the bugs worked out and rising concerns about climate change, that wind began to compete seriously with fossil and nuclear power. In 1997, Vermont again led the way when Green Mountain Power, with help from the Clinton Administration, built the first commercial-scale wind farm east of the Mississippi, on a ridge near Searsburg.

Today, as Vermonters pursue wind as a pollution-free power source – and plan its appropriate place in the spectacular Vermont landscape – it’s interesting to remember that moment in 1941 when Palmer Putnam and Albert Cree threw the switch that turned on a whole new energy industry.

This is Dan Reicher from Warren.

Dan Reicher is with Northern Power Systems and formerly served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy. VPR’s commentary series, “Great Thoughts of Vermont,” will continue to occasionally examine the big ideas that came out of a small state.

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