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75th Anniversary of Connecting the Smith-Putnam Wind Turbine to the Grid

Article by: Paul Gipe

On this date in 1941, the first commercial-scale wind turbine was connected to the electrical grid in the United States. It was a milestone in the development of wind energy. The giant Smith-Putnam turbine proved that a wind turbine could be used to generate commercially quantities of electricity in parallel with other forms of generation in North America.

Rotor for the Smith-Putnam wind turbine being assembled at the Budd plant near Philadelphia sometime in the early 1940s.

The 1.25 MW wind turbine atop Grandpa’s Knob near Rutland, Vermont remained one of the world’s largest wind turbines ever built until the late 1970s and 1980s. Today, such wind turbines are commonplace and there are now 475,000 MW of wind-generating capacity worldwide.

We’ve come a very long ways indeed.

However, the Smith-Putnam wind turbine was not the first turbine connected to an electrical network. As I report in my new book, Wind Energy for the Rest of Us, this honor goes to the Danes. During the Great War, the utility serving the area north of Copenhagen introduced alternating current (AC). (Previously, rural areas of Denmark were served by direct current.) In 1919 the utility serving the Danish capital installed a wind turbine at Buddinge and connected it to its lines—a first worldwide, a full two decades before the Smith-Putnam machine in Vermont was connected to the grid.

Moreover, wind energy owes its success today not to the Smith-Putnam machine and the top-down technological pathway it exemplified, but to a movement by Danish farmers, machinists, and anti-nuclear activists that built wind turbines from the bottom up.

While today we acknowledge the contributions made at Grandpa’s Knob so long ago, we should not forget that we owe the Danes a note of gratitude for making wind energy work.