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Windmills & Windmill Alternatives

In the recent search for an alternative to the more traditional windmill, it is common that windmills are often confused with wind turbines, but they are not the same. Windmills do not produce electrical power, but use wind power for other purposes such as pumping water or grinding grain into flour. See our article on wind turbines for a full treatment on wind turbines. 


Nebraska Cattle Farm using a windpump windmill

Windmills have been in use for centuries, with the first windmill believed to used in Persia in the 9th century CE. 

Windmills are machines that convert kinetic energy (from the wind) to mechanical energy. Anything that can produce rotational power can be useful for a variety of purposes. Today, electric motors and combustion engines are usually implemented whenever there is a need to rotational power. 

Windmills are still in use today, with various farms throughout the world using windmills to pump water in remote locations where electricity is unavailable (see photo on the right). Windmills that pump water are called windpumps

Windpumps can pump water out of the ground, or pump standing water into a pond or other more suitable location. With a 15 to 20 MPH wind, 6' windmills can pump 180 gallons of water per hour (3 gallons per minute), depending on the depth of the well. The maintenance on these windpumps is minimal, requiring a simple lubrication or gear oil change once or twice a year. Some windpumps can pump water from wells as deep as 600 feet. Windpumps were also used to supply water for steam powered locomotives. 

Another common usage for windmills are grinding grain. These were very popular in Europe, especially from the 12th century until the steam power age. 

Various improvements in design included the ability for the windmill to turn and face the wind, various braking mechanisms to keep the mill from turning too fast, increases in the number of millstones available for use, increases in height, and improvements in building materials to make the mills more durable. 

The millwrights were very skilled craftsmen and produced a number of beautiful designs. A number of mills have been restored due to their photogenic properties. The trend for organic and green powered manufacturing methods have resulted in a slight increase in desirability.

Windmills have also been implemented in sawmill operations, and the threshing of grains. Wherever a need may be for a standing structure to provide rotational power, a windmill can be used to harness the wind's energy. The possibilities are many. 

Of course, the disadvantage of windmills is the intermittent nature of wind. Some areas of the world are simply not very windy, so windmills were not a feasible solution in those cases. A person's productivity was also wholly dependant on the weather conditions each day. For this reason, electrical and steam power technologies eventually replaced windmill operations. 

For homeowners who want a renewable energy source and desire to no longer rely on air polluting utility companies for their energy needs, the windmill alternatives are many and can have a variety of uses.

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