By Kevin Killough, energy reporter
New technology demonstrations are often exercises in trial and error, and Wyoming’s first demonstration of wind energy four decades ago was mostly error.
On Sept. 4, 1982, about 500 residents, according to a 2014 Bureau of Reclamation document, gathered in Medicine Bow as state officials dedicated Wyoming’s first wind power turbines at an event dubbed “Wind Turbine Day.”
Wyoming U.S. Sen. Malcolm Wallop and Gov. Ed Herschler attended the dedication.
Rep. Joe MacGuire, R-Casper, was just a boy when his dad took him to see it. MacGuire said he doesn’t remember the crowd being that large, but it was a long time ago.
“I was a kid sitting in the pickup. I was not there counting heads or taking estimates,” MacGuire told Cowboy State Daily.
One turbine, the WTS-4, was under technical management of NASA and supported with funding from the U.S. Department of the Interior — $18.5 million in 2022 dollars.
The 391-foot tower had two blades and produced 4 megawatts of power when the wind was blowing. It was the largest in the world at the time in terms of size and generation capability.
The second turbine, which was built by Washington’s Boeing Engineering and Construction Co., also had two blades, but it was only 350 feet tall and produced 2.5 megawatts. It cost $12.4 million in today’s dollars.
While wind turbines are commonplace today, the towers were something entirely new in 1982.
“Everybody looked at it as a curiosity,” MacGuire recalled.
Interestingly, the average onshore wind turbines today are 410 feet tall and generate about 3 megawatts, though the largest offshore wind towers are nearly 500 feet tall and generate 17 megawatts when the wind is blowing.
Sold For Scrap
The Bureau of Reclamation commissioner at the time predicted that by the year 2000, wind would be a “significant source” of power in the region. While that prediction turned out to be accurate, you wouldn’t know it by the fate of those first two turbines.
Reliability issues plagued both turbines.
The Boeing turbine operated off and on for 18 months before its main bearing failed. The repair bill was $4.6 million in today’s dollars, and in 1987, the BOR mothballed the project. Eventually, the tower was sold to a scrap dealer for $30,000. The dealer dynamited the tower and halted it away.
The WTS-4 ran until 1986 when a bolt worked loose in the generator and destroyed it. It was sold to a local engineer for $20,000. He repaired and operated the lone tower as the “Medicine Bow Energy Co.” until a windstorm tore it apart in 1994.
MacGuire said his dad was friends with the governor at the time. Though MacGuire’s father was a Republican and Herschler a Democrat, the men were both World War II vets.
“I remember the governor said a few words and other dignitaries. Then we loaded up and went home,” MacGuire said.
Today, Wyoming has more than 3,000 megawatts of wind energy generation across the state, so those two turbines were the first of thousands that were to come.
As a young boy, MacGuire said he didn’t fully appreciate the historic value of that day at the time.
“I was probably more worried about what time we’re going to eat lunch,” he said.