How Does a Wind Turbine Work?

Wind farms have become a growing force in the American energy supply, with Texas alone producing more power from wind than most countries. In a post-oil energy grid, the meaning of the term “Texas tea” will likely become increasingly opaque to young people.

But how does wind power actually work?

The basic physics ofwind energy dates back to the 1800s, with Michael Faraday’s discovery that electricity in a wire can produce a magnetic field, and vice-versa. Electric motors operate when plugged into a battery or wall socket, at which point an electric circuit is completed.Theelectric current flows through conducting wires, coils, split ring-commutators, and various other AC- or DC-specific parts.

This currentcreates a magnetic field, which causes ferromagnetic metallic parts to move — typically in a rotation fashion,which can operate gears and axles to move machines.

Electric generators operate in pretty much the same way, but backwards. Instead of electricity creating a magnetic field that causes a a turbine to spin and operate a machine, some other force is used to cause the turbine, with magnets attached, to spin.

The spinning magnets create a changing field that forces electrons in wires to move, producing electric current. The below sketch of Hippolyte Pixii’s dynamo shows an early model of this concept, which involves a spinning horseshoe magnet.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But the basic idea of capturing and redirecting energy was around well before Faraday. For centuries, the rotational energy provided by water wheels and windmills operated machinesthat completed taskslikecutting timberor crushing wheat grains into flour.

Now the same technology creates an electrical current capable of running cities.

If you haven’t seen a wind turbine up close, you may not realize just how massive they actually are. Even a turbine whose vanes appear to be moving quite slowly — say, one full rotation every half-minute or so — is actually capturing huge amounts of energy because of themass involved.

To put it another way, imagine a slow-moving tractor trailer. It has more than enough energy to turn you into road pizza if you don’t get out of the way — even if it’s moving at five miles per hour.

Unlike hydroelectric power, which is reasonably constant, wind turbines can move significantly faster or slower depending on the time of year, and even day-by-day changes in wind speed and direction. These variations can be managed by storing excess energy in the grid during slow times and then releasing it at peak times — or by coordinating multiple energy sources, like wind paired with hydroelectric, tidal or geothermal, logistically.

Locations for potential wind farms are scouted out based on meteorological measurements and proximity to human electric grids. But this is a country with a lot of land. While other energy sources may be a better fit in certain countries — or certainregions oftheU.S. –wind is a goodoverall fit for American energy needs.

Current estimates suggest that wind power will be responsible for one-third of energy needs in the United States alone by 2050.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

68 comments

Latoya B
Latoya Byesterday

The grass on that first pic is so green.

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Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson15 days ago

Thank you.

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heather g
heather g17 days ago

Aren't we slow on the uptake of major inventions from many years ago?
By the way, the USA's Fish & Wildlife Dept kills millions of birds each year.

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Richard E Cooley
Richard E Cooley23 days ago

Thank you.

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Berenice Guedes de Sá
Berenice Guedes25 days ago

Thanks for sharing!!!!

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Henry M
Henry M26 days ago

Please note that although wind turbines do kill some birds and bats, they account for only about 0.0003% of all human-caused deaths of wild birds and bats in the United States (Not to mention all the domesticated birds we kill to supply poultry meat). You can save more bird lives by keeping your cat indoors than by opposing wind energy.

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Ron Loynes
Ron Loynes26 days ago

Food for thought. Here in Florida we have an algae bloom problem. One of the contributing factors is slow water current circulation and therefore warmer water. Both contribute to algae blooms. So if we put wind turbines in say the rivers where underneath we can push water we create an artificial current and the reduce the water temperature. When the temperature drops sufficiently we can then redirect the energy produced to our electric plants. Clearly it's not a perfect idea with several small obstacles but in principle it would work?

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Caitlin L
Caitlin L26 days ago

Thanks

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JinnySITEISSUES L

I absolutely believe in clean energy but tragically these wind turbines kill migrating birds, bats, etc. which includes those that are protected and on the endangered specie list. We need to get and do it right.....before "big wind" becomes "big oil" and only thinks of profits. Thanks for sharing.

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Gino C
Gino C27 days ago

Thank you

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