Birth of modern renewable energy on Vermont mountain offers a lesson for fighting climate change

Birth of modern renewable energy on Vermont mountain offers a lesson for fighting climate change
© Greg Nash

Eighty years ago this month, modern renewable energy began. On a Vermont mountain 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. Time Magazine captured the historic moment (Oct. 19, 1941, at 6:56 p.m.): “Slowly, like the movements of an awakening giant, two stainless-steel vanes — the size and shape of a bomber’s wings — began to rotate.” And President Franklin Roosevelt’s science advisor, Vannevar Bush, wrote “the great wind-turbine on a Vermont mountain … proved that at some future time homes may be illuminated and factories may be powered by this new means.”  

Fast forward eight decades, and wind has indeed become a practical energy source, yet it generates barely 8 percent of U.S. electricity and just 6 percent globally. The Grandpa’s Knob turbine is a cautionary and timely tale — particularly for negotiators heading to the Glasgow climate talks this weekend — about how long and hard it is to get an energy technology to commercial scale and the obstacles that remain for wind, and many other clean energy sources, to become significant tools in fighting climate change.

In the 1930s, Palmer Putnam, an MIT-trained engineer, president of G.P. Putnam’s Sons publishers, and top Cape Cod sailor, was impressed by the power of wind at sea and bothered by high electric prices at home. He partnered with General Electric, the Central Vermont Public Service Corporation, and the S. Morgan Smith Company, to develop the breakthrough “Smith-Putnam” turbine. The turbine, with a ten-story tower and two gleaming 66-foot blades, operated for four years, facing winds up to 115 mph. But in 1945 one of its eight-ton blades snapped off and tumbled down Grandpa’s Knob. With the project exceeding cost estimates, the Grandpa’s Knob team halted the effort. They had proven that utility-scale wind turbines worked technically, but without major funding for a multi-unit project they were stuck in what we now call the “Valley of Death” — where they could not establish that wind farms worked commercially. 

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Meanwhile, a government-funded reactor in Idaho generated nuclear electricity for the first time in 1951, coal-fired power was growing fast, and natural gas-generation was getting started. But the patient visionaries who followed Putnam didn’t give up. In the 1970s’ energy crisis, the U.S. Department of Energy backed wind R&D, California entrepreneurs developed wind projects in blustery passes, and the Danes led the way in Europe. Support for wind power waned with the end of the energy crisis, but in the 1990s larger and cheaper wind turbines hit the market. And in the 2000s, the global wind industry, backed by government incentives and mandates, saw hockey-stick growth, with oil-rich Texas leading the U.S.

Despite this recent progress, industry and governments globally must overcome several obstacles to finally achieve wind power’s huge potential. They must radically accelerate the pace of building wind farms, and associated long-distance transmission lines, to double and then triple global wind generation. They must rapidly overcome the technical and financial hurdles of storing vast amounts of intermittent wind (and solar) power. They must also raise trillions of dollars to finance this huge build-out. And all this must happen fast, with an ever-worsening climate crisis.

Happily, there are three bright spots.

First, the pending federal budget reconciliation legislation includes substantial and long-lasting tax incentives to stimulate major private sector investment in U.S. wind farms and electricity storage projects. Likewise, in the pending federal bipartisan infrastructure bill there are tens of billions of dollars to build critical transmission lines and electricity storage plants.

Second, the wind industry, all over the world, is going offshore, capturing the resource that inspired Putnam, with ever larger and cheaper turbines. And, after much R&D, the industry is progressing from turbines sitting in shallow waters near shore to machines on floating platforms in deep waters, beyond the views of coastal residents and habitats of most marine wildlife. 

Third, the global climate talks in Glasgow provide a major opportunity to shine a bright light on the Valley of Death and the challenges it presents for quickly developing and massively deploying a broad array of energy technologies that are essential to fighting climate change, from wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower to energy efficiency, biomass, nuclear, carbon capture and electricity storage.

Eighty years after his path-breaking demonstration on Grandpa’s Knob, I bet that Palmer Putnam — wind power pioneer and ace sailor — would be pleased.

Dan Reicher is a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Woods Institute and a senior director at the Climate Adaptive Infrastructure Fund. He was previously director of climate and energy initiatives at Google, Department of Energy assistant secretary and chief of staff in the Clinton administration, and a member of the Obama administration’s transition team and secretary of energy advisory board.