Island Ingenuity: Build a Windmill from Recycled Materials

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It was our first trip to a Greek island, and until we got there we really had no idea what people meant by “significant wind strength.” Your hat won’t stay on, and laundry peels itself off the line to take flight. You have to duck your head just to walk a straight path. You get a clue about the raw power of the wind if you look at the trees–bent growing toward the south.

Our friends on the island of Andros wanted to capture some of this power for a windmill. Their needs in their two-room house were simple: just a fridge and a few lights. The plan sounded straightforward enough to us when we agreed to help build a windmill that would produce eight kilowatts per day. However, past experience on the island, the northernmost of the Cycladic chain, had been that even commercial windmills were not tough enough to battle the fierce Aegean winds.

We soon discovered there were few stores for buying parts and we were on our own to design and build the windmill. Most of the parts came from the island’s trash heaps, except the (very used) twenty-four-volt bus alternator we had brought with us from Germany. We knew the windmill would have to have short blades and the rotor would have to be very heavy to counteract strong windbursts. The small rotor would have to turn at high speed, so we needed a very simple transmission system to obtain the average 3,000 rpm required by the bus alternator to create its maximum energy output. The center part of the rotor was once the wheeled base of an office chair, and the windmill’s blades were once part of an old welding table. The balancing rods were simply iron water pipes.

As more and more oddball parts got screwed or welded together, the windmill rotor had to be tested and retested for balance. We suspended it and hoped for the best. We’d all gather round and applaud as it made its first full turn each time.

Few people actually believed a bunch of amateurs (a sociology teacher, a history professor, a radio salesman, and a secretary) had much chance of turning all this recycled junk into a functioning windmill. It took us two summer vacations to get it right, but this is a one-of-a-kind model, and it’s not for sale!