The Difference Between Windmills and Wind Turbines

The Difference Between Windmills and Wind Turbines

Wind power is a versatile source of renewable and sustainable energy. As it becomes more popular, you may hear people interchange the terms windmills and wind turbines, but the two have distinctly different meanings and uses.

So, what’s the difference between the two?

Well, both use wind energy and convert it into other forms of energy for everyday life and use. However, windmills mainly convert wind energy to mechanical energy, whereas wind turbines convert wind energy directly to electrical energy (AKA electricity).

I’ll talk more in-depth about their differences and give examples + uses of each later in the article.

What is Wind Energy?

Wind energy is a renewable form of energy production that uses air or wind to create mechanical energy or electricity.

The global movements towards sustainable energy are leaving fossil fuels behind in favor of renewable energy like solar or wind power. There will always be wind, whereas resources like oil will eventually run out. 

With reliable processes and cost-effective implementation and production, windmills and wind turbines use wind energy for a greener future. 

Windmills vs. Wind Turbines

These two forms of wind energy are both sustainable and effective for various forms of power. They differ in certain ways and overlap in others. 

Terminology

The main difference between windmills and wind turbines lies within how each converts wind energy. 

A windmill generates mechanical energy from wind power, while a wind turbine generates electricity from wind power. 

Windmills have been around for centuries. They have developed throughout the years to keep up with new technology, but overall, they maintain the same principle: converting wind into mechanical energy.

This mechanical energy is often directly used to grind grain, mill crops, saw wood, etc.

Wind turbines, on the other hand, are newer and more modern. Their purpose is to generate electricity from wind power, hence why they are emerging as a prominent option within the energy industry. 

Neither release harmful gasses like fossil fuels do during production or usage. Both are cost-effective and relatively low maintenance. Wind turbines, though, are the more popular option for modern energy needs. 

They also share other similarities and differences in terms of materials and operations. 

How They Work

One of the most obvious differences between the two is their size and shape. A windmill is wider with bigger and thicker blades. A wind turbine, though, is thinner and taller with skinnier blades. 

Part of the reason for these size differences is the materials that go into them for production and usage. 

A wind turbine requires two or three large blades on the outside, elevated high above the ground. These blades connect to and rotate around a rotor. The rotor connects to the main shaft, so when the wind blows, the process drives the generator to create electricity ready for usage.

The curved blades use aerodynamics to lift and drag the air currents. This dynamic helps generate a better force for electric production. The process begins generally in wind forces of six to nine mph, and most turbines shut down at approximately 55 mph wind speeds to prevent damage. 

Windmills have a similar process. The blades also rotate around a shaft with air pressure differences on separate sides of the blades. The shaft then turns and converts the wind energy into mechanical energy. 

Inner Workings of a Dutch Windmill (Used for Crushing Chalk and Milling Dye)

The parts and processes of windmills and turbines are similar but they work to create different forms of energy. This leads to another main difference between the two: their usages.

Applications, Uses, and Examples of Each

Since people use windmills mostly for mechanical energy and wind turbines for electricity, their purposes and applications, therefore, differ too.

A windmill is most useful for processes you may see on farms or in the country. These include pumping water, milling crops, sawing wood, grinding grain and more. Though some windmills can work to generate electricity, they are predominately helpful for traditional farm-related activities. 

Image of a Windmill with a Sunset background
Windmill

A wind turbine creates electricity mostly for commercial use in homes, businesses, schools, local government buildings and more. 

There are three types of wind turbines, too. The first is a utility-scale turbine that generates electricity and drives it to the power grid for electric utilities or systems. The second is distributed, meaning a single wind turbine powers a home or small business that does not connect to the grid.

The last is offshore wind energy, which entails multiple wind turbines in a large body of water. Together, the turbines generate a greater amount of power. This is the concept of a wind farm, where multiple turbines work congruently for a larger electricity output. 

Image of an offshore wind turbine farm
Offshore Wind Farm (Wind Turbines)

Apart from their terminology and end production goals, their applications and purposes are what set them apart. Though both are sustainable, turbines are leading the wind energy movement due to their versatility and ability to produce large amounts of electricity. 

These developments are what lead wind power to change the energy industry. 

How Wind Energy Is Changing the Energy Industry

Fossil fuels and non-renewable energy are on their way out, however slowly. The progress is gradual but sustainable, and renewable energy is working its way into the industry. Wind power is one of the central focuses of this change. 

One of the oldest arguments in support of fossil fuels is that renewable energies are impractical and expensive. But wind energy is challenging, and disproving, those ideas.

First, renewable energy prices are dropping every year. In fact, in 2018 all renewable energy prices decreased, with wind lowering by 13%. While fossil fuel prices fluctuate depending on the economy and geopolitics, wind prices remain consistent. 

With wind powers’ competitive prices, more people and companies will likely start to make the switch. But the debate between renewable and non-renewable energy continues. Skeptics raise concerns over the placement of the turbines and their abilities for power. 

Those who are pro-wind energy discuss how the pros outweigh the cons. Locations won’t necessarily be an issue since wind farms entail multiple turbines together, creating large amounts of electricity. 

Those in favor also bring up the environmental benefits of renewable energy. Fossil fuels release CO2 emissions, which contribute to the greenhouse gas effect and climate change. Wind energy has no harmful emissions and can last theoretically forever. 

Wind is essentially disrupting the norms of the energy industry. It is focusing the conversation on better ways to generate electricity for people and the earth. 

And it is only going to develop more from here. 

Innovations for the Future

Renewable energy is here for the long run. As more people turn to sustainable options, renewable energy resources will continue to develop. And technology plays a helpful role in that development. 

For instance, you may know of the Internet of Things (IoT) and how it is the center of the new technological movement. IoT is a network of interconnected devices that can send and receive data through internet connections. It is where much of the technology of today emerges from.

With wind energy, you may see IoT providing technology and devices to improve upon an already clean system. A platform, for example, that links wind turbines together digitally could optimize their storage. This could ultimately maximize their capacity for storing electricity. 

Another point of skepticism towards wind power is its ability to store energy, so future technology will come in handy for maximizing it. Though it can already save energy for periods of time without wind, new tech will help improve upon its capacity. 

Some other things to look forward to will also come with new tech. 

Bladeless wind turbines have been in talks for years and are starting to come to fruition. These cost less to manufacture and put into production than the turbines with blades. They also are safer for birds.

Last, keep an eye out for future overlapping of renewable energies. Since these energies are sustainable, getting them to work with each other could help efficiency and production. So, something like hydro-wind power may not be too far away.

Windmills and turbines are two similar forms of energy production. And they both speak to the bigger picture of energy: moving towards sustainability for a cleaner and healthier future.

About the Author: Jenna Tsui

Jenna is a tech journalist who co-owns The Byte Beat and frequently writes about the latest news in technology, disruptive tech, and environmental science and more. Check out her work on TBB or follow her on Twitter @jenna_tsui!

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