In the late 1970s, North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. beat out 65 electric cooperatives, municipals and investor-owned utilities to host a Department of Energy research and development project on wind energy.

Negotiations and planning continued for a number of years, and then, in the spring and summer of 1979, DOE erected a monstrous 2,000-kilowatt wind turbine atop Howard’s Knob, a 4,200-foot peak above the Blue Ridge Mountains vacation town of Boone, where the co-op had a district office.

By fall, the co-op hoped to distribute wind power to more than 300 homes in Watauga County. It was upgrading a nearby single–phase line to three-phase to do that.  

The turbine, which was turned by two 100-foot variable pitch blades, was designed by NASA and built by General Electric and Boeing. It cost DOE $5.8 million, more than twice what a 2-megawatt turbine would cost today.

Howard’s Knob was the largest DOE wind project thus far. Four others, all rated 200 kilowatts—in Rhode Island, New Mexico, Puerto Rico and Hawaii—were either up and running or still under construction. 

DOE also had proposed building three or four larger turbines (2,500 kilowatts) and was to spend $20 million on developing small-scale turbines for individual consumers.

“Especially in its large-scale program, DOE’s challenge is to prove that wind-generated electricity can be economically feasible and not just a curiosity,” noted a September 1979 RE Magazine article.

With power priced at 6 to 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, the turbine atop Howard’s Knob couldn’t compete with the coal-generated power Blue Ridge EMC bought wholesale for 1.8 cents per kWh and retailed for 3.4 kWh.

“But if the cost of conventional fuels keeps rising, and the state of the art of wind generation keeps improving, Howard’s Knob, and others like it, might be able to compete,” the RE article stated.

With its 150-foot height, 200-foot blade span and nacelle the size of a boxcar, some Boone residents jokingly referred to the 325-ton turbine as the “monster.”

“It looks like a big plane taking off,” said one resident.

On a clear a day, it could be seen for miles away on either U.S. 321 or U.S. 421, a fact that was not lost on DOE. People driving locally or crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains could see how the federal government was using some of the $60 million it would spend on wind power in 1979.

Down on King Street, Boone’s main drag, two enterprising young men had built an observation deck in a parking lot where you could step up to a pair of tourist binoculars, deposit 25 cents, and get a close-up view of “The World’s Largest Wind Mill.” 

Today, wind is an established source of generation and will undoubtedly continue to play a bigger role here in the U.S. and around the world. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of February 2023, wind power accounted for 10.2 percent (435 billion kWh) of U.S. electricity production, up from virtually zero in 1980. And the cost of wind has gone down 18-fold.