The Mod 1 turbine. (Photo courtesy Natasha Thompson)
The Mod 1 turbine. (Photo courtesy Natasha Thompson)

In the mid-1970s, President Jimmy Carter was making a big push for “alternative” energy sources that could lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil. One key question was, could wind turbines be scaled up enough to generate electricity for utilities?

At the time, the Apollo program was winding down, and some of the space agency’s engineers were underemployed. So the federal government appropriated tens of millions of dollars and authorized NASA to design five large turbines.

At 2,000 kilowatts, Mod 1 was the biggest of the five. Its two 100-footlong turbine blades gave it a wingspan slightly larger than a Boeing 747. Some pieces of the generator were bigger than a boxcar.

The Department of Energy, after studying 65 possible locations, in 1977 chose Howard’s Knob, a 4,400-foot mountain peak overlooking Boone, North Carolina, as the test site. The feds also chose the local electric co-op, Blue Ridge EMC, as the host utility. It was convenient that one of the co-op’s distribution lines passed within 100 feet of the site.

Blue Ridge EMC (now called Blue Ridge Energy) had never operated a power plant of any kind before, let alone a freakish-looking space-age wind machine that stood 150 feet high and weighed 325 tons. But the co-op’s leadership felt hosting it was the patriotic thing to do.

Mod 1 was dedicated on July 11, 1979, but by then, it had already become a tourist attraction. Downtown on King Street, Boone’s main drag, two enterprising young men had built an observation deck in a parking lot and installed a coin-operated viewer where, for 25 cents, you see close-up “The World’s Largest Windmill.”

The optimum wind speed for Mod 1 was 25.5 miles per hour. Below 11 mph, the heavy blades wouldn’t turn; above 35 mph, the turning might damage vital mechanisms. Mod 1 would generate enough power for 300 to 500 homes at a cost between 6 cents and 12 cents a kilowatt-hour. (Blue Ridge EMC purchased wholesale power for 1.8 cents and distributed it for 3.4 cents.)

A series of problems soon made it apparent that those power projections were not going to pan out.

The wind didn’t blow as hard and as steadily the first winter (1979–1980) as the monitoring station on Howard’s Knob had led the NASA engineers to believe it would. Icing of the blades also cut into generation time.

Ten Blue Ridge EMC consumers living near the wind machine called the co-op to complain about noise, and 35 called to say their television reception suffered when the blades were turning, according to a 1982 NASA report. The noise—a “thumping” to some ears; a “whooshing” to others—was eliminated by replacing Mod 1’s 2-MW generator with a 1.5-MW unit. The TV complaints slowed after a decision was made to shut down Mod 1 every evening during prime time.

Then, on Jan. 20, 1981, Mod 1 suffered a fatal blow when 22 bolts in the drive train fractured, and the new Reagan administration declined to pay the $500,000 for repairs.

Watauga County officials hoped the feds would bequeath Mod 1 to the park they had created around the base of the tower. Instead, Mod 1 was offered to Blue Ridge EMC and then other utilities to no avail. It was too expensive to operate and didn’t operate very often anyway.

The General Services Administration ultimately sold the $6 million wind machine at auction for $51,600 to a North Carolina company that wanted the generator for a small hydro plant. That company, in turn, donated the 100-foot tower to Georgia Tech University.

Mod 1 was a failure. NASA knew it. Blue Ridge EMC knew it. People in town knew it because the turbine blades were usually still. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that Mod 1 ran for only 330 hours out of a possible 29,112 and generated only 75,000 kilowatt-hours out of a possible 43,668,000.

Still, the engineers and scientists at NASA and elsewhere who were researching wind power in the 1970s and 1980s learned valuable lessons about turbine performance and grid integration that moved the technology down the road toward the utility-scale success it enjoys today.

As one of these scientists told a reporter from the daily newspaper in nearby Hickory, North Carolina, “It was not the kind of failure that makes us worry about whether wind turbines are going to work.”

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