My wind turbine journey: How it started & how it is going

In this post I want to share how I got started with small wind turbines and off-grid things and how my initial excitement turned into a mission which has been a major part of my life for the past decade.

Photos will be added later!

My wind turbine journey began when I was around 13 years old. I had a teacher back then who showed me a little book about home made wind turbines. This book explained how a wind turbine can be built using old car parts and scrapyard material.

I’ve always been very interested in technical and handcrafted things, even at a young age. Homemade projects that are based on materials sourced from the local scrapyard drew my attention a lot.

In the early years of my childhood I would watch my grandfather do some work around his house. His attitude was alway that “we can do this by ourselves” and mostly have fun at it. This kind of mindset has been a main source of inspiration for me.

When I learned about home made wind turbines on that day, it was no surprise that I was instantly fascinated by the idea of building a small wind turbine myself and I could not wait to get started.

My first approach in building my own wind turbine was based on the materials that I could find around the house.  There was already quite a collection of stuff from previous tech projects like the Airplanes and Boats which I had built during that time of my youth.

Some of these parts did serve as ingredients for my first attempt in building my own little wind turbine.

The first wind turbine

I did use a simple DC Motor as a generator for this first attempt, combined with some plastic gears to get the desired speed. A two bladed wooden rotor with a diameter of about 70cm was quickly made from a piece of wood. Everything was done without much calculations and quickly thrown together. That wind turbine design was of course far from perfect but It was more about getting something done quickly at that time.

The excitement was huge when my first ever wind turbine started spinning after we erected it next to the garden shed on a 4m tall wooden pole. I connected a little 10 watt lightbulb to the wind turbine and it did go very bright indeed during wind gusts!

I laid out a cable in the following days, running from the turbine into my room, where I had connected some old NiCd batteries to the turbine so I could store my precious energy.

They eventually got charged and I spent the following windy nights watching the little lightbulb light up my room. That was a magical time. Somehow I knew that this was the beginning of something bigger which I could not even imagine back then.

It did not take long until I found my lovely little wind turbine rotor on the on the ground after a stormy night… The axle had broken in strong gusts during the night – due to gyroscopic forces when the turbine was yawing as I learned soon. Once the frustration had settled, the only thing on my mind was to build a better turbine with an improved design.

The second wind turbine

With the support of my great teacher-friend (who showed me the book about homemade windmills in the first place) I was ready to go ahead with my next try.

This time I went for the approach of using an old car alternator as a generator for the wind turbine. This concept was quite common in the german DIY and off-grid scene back then, although it has some major downsides.

That alternator needed a new winding in order to operate at the desired rotational speed for my turbine blades. In the car, the alternator will normally spin much faster.

I was around 15 years old at that time and I had no real plan for what I could do in my later life. To find inspiration, I went on a 3-day-Internship from school in a small electric machine company close to my hometown. These guys were specialized in fixing and custom-building electric motors and generators – the ideal place for me to visit. The owner was very friendly and helped me rewind my car alternator during that time.

I made another two-bladed wooden rotor with a friend of mine but this time we did the math properly in order to get better aerodynamic results. The new rotor was about 1,2m in diameter. We used some classic wood working tools to make the blades – a good practice that I have kept to this day.

This new turbine also required some electronics for the car alternator to function properly:

The alternator’s field coil had to be regulated according to the rotational speed in order to provide the right torque for the turbine rotor to function correctly. It had to be switched on automatically, once the rotational speed was high enough to charge the connected battery.

Such electronics were completely new to me at that time and I got help once more from my teacher who knew the deal. We have built the circuit all analog based on op-amps and passive elements.

 

Foto Schaltung

 

This new turbine also had an automatic overload protection for stormy days which worked with two wind vanes of which one would be held in place by a spring. In storm it would give in and let the turbine furl out of the main wind direction.

I also needed a bigger tower. My mom asked a friend who had access to a crane to help us put up a 7m tall wooden pole (basically a whole tree) in pace of the old little mast which I had before. That new tower even had a platform to stand on for some windmill maintenance.

I did also upgrade the old electrical system, now using a car battery as energy storage and a home built analog diversion load charge controller. This controller was once more made possible due to the help of my teacher who, at that time, had become a good friend of my family and did support me a lot at those projects during numerous phone calls.

In the spring of 2009, my 2nd turbine was finally up and running. My habit to make everything as perfect as possible did indeed delay this project a little.

That turbine however did not really bring the great results I was hoping for…

It did only produce some energy in strong winds, not much in light winds. While that is in the nature of most wind turbines, there where particular flaws in the design here: The car alternator was very inefficient and just needed too much rotational speed which would not be reached in light winds. The Generator’s field coil would also use too much of the precious energy in order to create the magnetic field, which made it very inefficient….

But I did get some electricity eventually and it was a lot of fun working and learning on this project.

Some years did go by after this 2nd turbine project and I tried some other things after i eventually went to get a diploma in audio engineering due to my love for music.

At some point however, I felt the urge to continue with my DIY projects so I decided that it was about time to step the wind turbine game up once more.
These first wind turbine DIY projects during my teenage years were great to get experience but now it was time to learn how to build a turbine properly and get an expert’s advice:

Meeting Hugh Piggott on Scoraig

I eventually found out about Hugh Piggott who lives off the grid grid on the Scoraig peninsula in the very windy northwest of Scotland.

Hugh has offered practical hands-on workshops at his home in Scotland, where one could learn how to build a wind turbine from scratch. A proper wind turbine with a custom built generator. That was exactly what I needed, thirsting for more experience!

Actually I knew about Hugh for a while but did not really consider traveling there and participate in his course since I was quite young at the time.

I signed up for a course and went to see Hugh on Scoraig in 2012 when I was 18 years old.

It’s a magical place, fully off the grid, where people make their own electricity with home built wind turbines and some solar panels. I have never seen such a place before and I was really excited upon my arrival. It takes some long bus rides and a small boat trip to get there. I will write more about it one day.

Once on Scoraig, I did some woofing (voluntarily work) on a self-sustaining farm for a while before attending Hugh’s wind turbine course.

For the first time in years, I have felt like I’m in the right place after messing with education choices and trying different things which all did not feel quite right. It felt like pure freedom for my 18-year-old self to be there on Scoraig among nice people, build cool stuff in a great environment, have great talks and enjoy life.

In the course I found out that Hugh Piggott had also gone through a similar trial-and error process like me in his early years of wind turbine building during the 70s and 80s. He also used car alternators and dynamos for his early home-built turbine designs. That made it very interesting for me.

Hugh has developed his own wind turbine design based on his experience.

It has a three-bladed wooden rotor and an axial flux generator (disc generator). The Generator is fully custom built using permanent magnets and hand-wound coils of enameled copper wire. It’s efficiency and power range are much greater than the modified car alternators which we used to deal with before.

In Hugh’s course we built a turbine of his own design. It had 3m in diameter and could deliver over 1kW of power easily.

After the course, Hugh had asked me if I want to stay a bit a bit longer and help him fix some local windmills. I stayed there for some more days and we worked on multiple projects and exchanged some knowledge.

On the right path

Attending Hugh’s course and spending time on Scoraig among like-minded people was a life-changing experience for me. I felt like this was the way to go for me.

During that time I learned a lot about the design process of those axial-flux generators and how to calculate everything around a wind turbine: How to design a generator for a specific windmill rotor, how to match speed and power of a generator to a specific set of blades, how to design an overload protection furling system, and so on.

It became clear to me that I would want to share this type of knowledge and make it my profession. I wanted to contribute to Hugh’s windmill work in some way and soon I started my own project “PureSelfMade” with the intention of sharing knowledge for DIY energy projects and home built wind turbines with the world.

Over the following years I did visit Hugh and my friends in Scoraig about once a year and took part in some quite ambitious projects. 2013 I was there to help Hugh finish his new large wind turbine – the biggest one that was ever built by Hugh’s design on Scoraig with a rotor diameter of 5,6m. That was quite a bit larger than my first small windmills and real good fun!

Teaching wind turbine hands-on courses myself

In 2013 it was time for me to organize and teach my first wind turbine DIY course based on Hugh’s concept. He helped me a lot by providing some advice during this project.

That course went quite well, I did have only three participants which were all friends of mine.  We had a lot of fun building a wind turbine together and I could get important teaching experience.

In the following years I did start to teach these workshop courses regularly and soon I got many inquiries after I was struggling to find course participants in the first place. I now offer courses for individuals as well as institutions, universities, schools, companies, etc. With every project comes a new challenge and a new experience.

Soon I did start to travel a lot around Europe and other countries to teach these hands-on courses and to attend related events. Most courses so far took place in Austria and Germany but I did some projects in a number of other countries as well and I could make many new friends around the globe.

It was not only about teaching people how to build wind turbines and other off-grid related things. It was the spirit that came up during these courses that made them truly amazing. A bunch of people coming together to learn something new and share some skills with each other is just a cool thing.

There were always some improvements that came to my mind while working with Hugh’s wind turbine designs. So I did develop some of my own things along the way, for example electronics like wind turbine controllers, custom jigs and templates, special workflows that I use in the hands-on courses, a new custom mini wind turbine design, and so on.

I did also work on some new generator designs and upgraded blade carving workflows to further enhance the building process during the practical courses and improve the wind turbine’s capability and efficiency.

During this development work, some interesting scientific collaborations with universities were established as well.

Writing a new book

In all those projects I have mostly used Hugh’s turbine designs, especially the turbines with generators using ferrite magnets. We call them the F-Series designs.

Those have some special benefits which are explained in detail here (ferrite link)

I did get quite a lot of experience working with those generator designs for over 10 years now. While there is some documentation about the “classic” generator designs with neodymium magnets, there is no such book available for our Ferrite design series, just some drafts and scripts.

The idea of publishing a new book about those wind turbine plans has long been on my mind, probably since 2017. Hugh Piggott and I have had lots of talks about it and we did collect all kinds of resources.

I’ve been actively working on the new ferrite design book since summer 2020. A successful crowdfunding campaign has been held to raise some funds for the production of the book.

It will including everything a person needs to fully build, install, operate and maintain such a wind turbine. Also there will be many new ideas, tips and tricks from the field and some of my personal approaches with which I made good experiences.

This is the latest and biggest project on my path so far. I choose to take that challenge because I feel that the world needs this knowledge more than ever before.

What was it, that made me go on this path?

When I was a kid, I never had a real picture in my mind of what “Job” I would work when I grow up. What I did know was that I wanted to be free. Free to follow my heart and do something that I would enjoy. That might sound cheesy but it’s actually a real thing.

I wanted (and still want) to do something meaningful and something that I enjoy at the same time. I think I just tried to do the things that made me happy, the things that I enjoyed the most –  whether it was building a radio controlled plane or a windmill. I never did much planning for the future, things just happened along the way.

This ideology of freedom was always the driving force for me

Being able to build your own things at low cost using simple materials means freedom.
Making your own energy means freedom.
Being independent from expensive services or products, because you can help yourself, means freedom.
Spending my time with the occupation I love means freedom.

That’s the spirit! Something I believe in and consider worth spreading in the world.

Jonathan Schreiber
I started PureSelfMade to develop and spread DIY knowledge on renewable energies. I'm an enthusiast on home built small wind turbines, off-grid systems and other DIY projects. I teach hands-on workshops and publish on PureSelfMade.com. More about my background.

2 Responses to “My wind turbine journey: How it started & how it is going

  • Alejandro Toscano
    4 months ago

    How is it!! I’m looking forward the publishing date. Congrats on your path, it is stunning as you seem to become the definitive Hugh Piggot design booster giving continuity to his wonderful labour. Many thanks from windy southern Spain.

  • Arthur Sheridan
    2 months ago

    Keep going Jonathan. May you always be a free spirit. Would love to see 1.metre and 1.2 metre ferrite wind turbines suitable for small boats, caravans and vanlifers. Hope to do a course with you soon. Arthur Sheridan.

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