So How Do Wind Turbines Work, Anyway?

Most of us can agree that more clean energy is a good thing, but a surprising number of folks still don’t want wind turbines built in their backyards. That’s a shame, because the technology driving these bad boys is not only carbon and pollution free—it’s cool as hell.

I got a taste of this for myself a couple of years back, when I visited America’s first offshore wind farm just before it booted up. The first thing you’ll be struck by when you see a turbine up close is the scale. These aren’t some rinky-dink little “windmills” (an older technology that our president often confuses turbines with) but skyscraper-height steel towers with enormous glass or carbon fiber blades engineered for aerodynamic precision. And that’s just the stuff you can see.


The real magic behind wind turbines takes place in that little box (okay, multi-hundred ton steel control center) at the top of the structure, called the nacelle. There, kinetic energy from the spinning blades is converted by a generator into electrical energy. Watch the video above for more details on how your average turbine generates juice.

Bonus fact: Jobs at wind turbines often require serious James Bond skills. This woman, for instance, used her climbing prowess to become a blade repair worker, a job that involves rappeling off the nose cone of the turbine and performing maintenance work hundreds of feet in the air.


So, next time you hear someone complain about how “the windmills” are spoiling the ocean view, maybe take a moment to explain how turbines are phenomenal pieces of engineering. It might just change their mind, and if we can change enough minds, well, we can power entire coastlines with carbon-free breezes. Heck, a few red states are already leading the charge.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that turbines convert kinetic energy into a larger amount of electrical energy, which would violate the laws of thermodynamics, which turbines, despite their coolness, cannot do. The author apologizes for the silly error.

Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.


David E. Davis

While I’m not into 50ft props littering my dense suburban area, I’d definitely welcome individual vertical axis egg beaters.