Wind Turbine vs Windmill: Do You Know the Difference?

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Stephanie Cole
With her Master of Science in Renewable Energy Engineering (MSREE) from Oregon Tech, Steph is supremely well qualified to write on all aspects of sustainable living. She has already achieved a zero carbon footprint and her goal is to help as many other people as possible do the same. Her other hobbies include music, yoga, swimming and horror movies.
Stephanie Cole
Updated: March 15, 2024

Wind turbines and windmills may look similar, and many people confuse the two terms, but in fact, they are two very different things.

Do you know the difference? If not, then this beginner's guide will explain the differences (and similarities) in terms that anyone can understand.

In less than 5 minutes, you'll be able to tell a wind turbine from a windmill from a mile off, and even impress your friends with your new knowledge!

What is a Wind Turbine?

wind turbine on beach

  • A newer form of technology.
  • Converts wind energy into electrical power.
  • Blades (made from carbon fiber and plastic) turn a shaft connected to a generator.
  • Domestic or industrial-scale applications.
  • Onshore and offshore locations.

A modern wind turbine is a device that converts the kinetic energy of wind into electrical energy.

Wind turbines are typically used in conjunction with other forms of renewable energy, such as solar panels, to create a more reliable and consistent source of green power.

A good domestic wind turbine can generate power for an individual house (or boat). Large-scale wind farms generate renewable energy that can power thousands of homes.

There are two main types of wind turbines: horizontal axis and vertical axis. The vast majority of modern wind turbines have a horizontal axis, meaning that the blades rotate around a vertical shaft.

Vertical axis turbines are less common, but they have the advantage of being able to be located closer to the ground, making them more accessible for maintenance and repairs.

Types of Wind Turbine and How They Work

Wind turbines work by using the kinetic energy of wind to spin a generator that produces electricity.

The curved blades of a wind turbine generate lift and a difference in air pressure on each side of the blade, which causes them to rotate.

The force of the wind turns the wind turbine blades around a central shaft, which is connected to a gearbox. The gearbox increases the speed of the rotation and transfers the energy to a generator. The generator then generates electricity that can be used to power homes and businesses.

Wind turbines can be located offshore or onshore.

An onshore wind farm is typically located in rural areas where there is a consistent source of wind.

An offshore wind farm is located a few miles out at sea, where the wind blows at stronger and steadier speeds.

Wind farms are becoming increasingly common, as they offer a more efficient and environmentally friendly way to generate electricity than using fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas.

What is a Windmill?

Windmills in Amsterdam

  • An old form of technology dating back hundreds of years.
  • Converts wind energy into mechanical energy.
  • Very large blades (originally made from wood) moving in a circle.
  • Blades turn an axel connected to gears or pumps.
  • Used to grind grain or wheat, mill paper, shred small rocks, or pump water.

A windmill is a machine that converts the energy of wind into rotational energy by means of vanes called sails or blades. Centuries ago, windmills usually were used to mill grain, pump water, or both.

The first windmills were developed in Persia and China more than 1,000 years ago. Windmills later spread to Europe, where they were used for grinding grain and pumping water.

By the 18th century, windmills were also being used in America to grind flour and transport water. In the late 19th century, windmills were used to generate electricity in Europe and America.

Type of Windmills and How They Work

Windmills are classified according to the way their vanes are mounted on the main shaft. The three most common types of windmills are post mills, smock mills, and tower mills.

Post mills have the vanes mounted at the bottom of a wooden or metal post.

Smock mills have the vanes mounted on a wooden or metal framework that resembles a smock, a type of loose-fitting shirt.

Tower mills have the vanes mounted at the top of a tall tower.

The sails of a windmill are angled so that they catch the wind blowing in from the side. The force of the wind turns the sails around the main shaft, which is connected to a large gearwheel.

The gearwheel turns a second, smaller gearwheel that is connected to the millstone. The millstone grinds grain into flour or meal.

Windmill and Wind Turbine: Similarities and Differences

Windmills and wind turbines share an obvious common factor - that they use blades to harness wind power. But there are several key differences between them.

The main difference between a wind turbine and a windmill is their purpose. Wind turbines are used to generate electricity, while windmills are used for pumps or grinding grain.

Wind turbines work by using the wind to turn blades that spin a generator, which produces electricity. Windmills work by using the wind to turn blades that pump water or grind grain.

Wind turbines are usually much larger and higher than windmills, with thinner blades, and often operate together in larger installations. Windmills are typically smaller, but have thicker blades, and generally require less power to operate.

Wind turbines need to be located in areas with strong and consistent winds, such as on top of hills or in open fields. Windmills also only work when the wind blows, but they can only be located onshore.

Wind turbines are a relatively new technology, while windmills have been used for centuries.

So, while wind turbines and windmills both use blades to harness the power of the wind, they are designed and used in different ways.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is wind energy?

Wind energy is a type of renewable energy that uses wind to produce electricity.

Wind energy is a clean, emission-free source of electricity, making it a very attractive option for those looking to reduce their carbon footprint.

What is the difference between wind energy and wind power?

Wind energy is the energy that comes from the wind. This can be harnessed using wind turbines, which convert the wind's energy into electricity.

Wind power is the term used to describe the amount of electricity that is generated by a wind turbine.

Why do they call it a windmill?

The name "windmill" is derived from the fact that these early machines were powered by the wind and were used to mill grains, wheat, or paper.

What are the disadvantages of wind turbines?

Wind power is generally recognized as one of the cleanest forms of renewable energy. But just like any other energy source, it isn't perfect.

  • They can be a hazard to birds and bats. Birds may mistake the turbines for trees and nests, while bats may be killed by the blades or by the turbulence created by the spinning blades.
  • Turbines can be noisy. The noise produced by a single turbine is generally not a problem, but when many turbines are built close together, the noise can be significant.
  • Wind farms can be an eyesore. Some people think that wind turbines are ugly and that they spoil the natural beauty of the landscape.
  • Wind farms need a lot of space. In order to be effective, wind turbines must be built in areas where there is a consistent source of wind. This means that they often have to be built in remote, rural areas.

The Final Word

Wind turbines and windmills are two very different technologies that are commonly (and incorrectly) confused.

They both use blades to convert wind power into clean energy, but turbines produce electricity whereas windmills are used to directly produce mechanical energy.

These can have various applications, but the energy produced must be used locally to the windmill itself.

To find out more about whether a domestic wind turbine could help you reduce your energy bills, check out our guides on the cost and benefits of a wind turbine, and the correct way to calculate its mean power output.

And now, if you hear someone use the terms windmill and wind turbine incorrectly, you can put them right (politely of course!)

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Stephanie Cole
Stephanie Cole
With her Master of Science in Renewable Energy Engineering (MSREE) from Oregon Tech, Steph is supremely well qualified to write on all aspects of sustainable living. She has already achieved a zero carbon footprint and her goal is to help as many other people as possible do the same. Her other hobbies include music, yoga, swimming and horror movies. - As Seen On
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