Windmill vs wind turbine – 3 biggest differences

There are a lot of questions about the difference between windmill vs wind turbine since these two concepts are often confused by many people. Windmills, turbines, they’re all the same… right? This is a wrong thought. While wind turbines are modern predecessors of traditional windmills, the two structures are quite different. They have distinct functions and are therefore built quite differently. And if you want to know what is the difference between them, read the article shared below. 

How does a windmill work?

Windmills, as we know them today, were first recorded in Northwestern Europe in the 12th century. The first known windmill dates to the North of England in 1185 and was used to grind grain. These windmills became popular throughout Europe, especially in the Netherlands. Even today, windmills are considered a symbol of Dutch culture.

Windmills are used mainly for grinding grain, hence the name windmill. They use the power of the wind to spin an internal camshaft that drives a grain mill. Windmills use an original gear system to transfer energy from the sail to the camshaft and into the grain mill. Windmills are especially useful in places where domestic water is scarce, as many riverside villages already use water mills for similar purposes. Traditional windmills are made of wood or masonry bricks and have four large sails upholstered in cloth.

How the windmill work?
How the windmill work?

Some windmills are also used to pump water. While wind poles have been in use since the 9th century, the iconic wind pole, often referred to as America’s windmill became a staple throughout the Midwestern United States in the 19th century.

Farmers mainly use them to pump water from wells, although they are also used for grinding grain and sawing wood. While the traditional European windmill is a large structure, wide of wood and brick and has four large sails, the American windmill is set on a simple metal mesh frame, with a propeller consisting of several thin metal sails with a spoiler attached. American windmills soon became symbols of the Great Plains landscape.

What is the difference between windmill vs wind turbine
What is the difference between windmill vs wind turbine

How do wind turbines work? 

Wind turbines are a new twist based on old windmills. Although wind power is now becoming the norm, the first turbines to generate electricity date back more than 150 years.

The first wind turbine was built in Cleveland in 1887 and powered a 12kW generator. Midwestern farmers then began generating small amounts of electricity using their windmills in the 1930s, when power lines had yet to reach remote farms on the Great Plains. At the same time, the forerunner of the modern wind turbine was being developed in the USSR, with the first being erected in Yalta in 1931. It is 30 feet tall and runs on a 100 kW generator.

The oil crisis of the 1970s spurred the development of the renewable energy sector. Thousands of wind turbines have been installed in California, with the Altamont Pass Wind Farm coming online in the 1980s. Many of these turbines have grid towers, which attract eagles and lead to the death of thousands of birds when they collide with propellers. This prompted controversy over wind farms and the danger to birds, which continues to this day.

The modern, all-white, sleek turbine design was conceptualized in the 1990s and 2000s. Wind power in Europe has evolved in the new millennium, with countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and the UK leading the way. Today, wind power is the most abundant form of renewable energy in the U.S., even surpassing hydropower.

Wind turbines operate on a very simple principle. The energy of the wind causes 2 or 3 blades to rotate around 1 rotor. The rotor is connected to the spindle and the spindle will drive to rotate the generator shaft to generate electricity. Wind turbines are placed on high pillars to capture most of the wind energy. At 30 meters on the ground, wind turbines are favorable: Faster speeds and fewer unusual wind currents.

How do wind turbines work?
How do wind turbines work?

What is the key difference between them?

Different in structure

The difference in function between the two structures leads to great differences in internal mechanics. The sails of the windmill are connected through gears to a vertical camshaft that runs down the center of the windmill. This usually drives a grain mill or water pump located at the base of the windmill, which may or may not be underground. And so inside windmills tend to be quite spacious.

Meanwhile, the energy in wind turbines is still horizontally oriented. The bearing-driven blades in the gearbox connected to the generator. All work in the wind turbine is carried out at the top, and no movement occurs below the torsion pipe. The cable runs down the tower of the wind turbine, which connects to the power grid. 

The inside of the turbine is not as spacious, but the tower has a hollow that allows workers to climb the spokes. The interior of the nacelle is quite cramped, with the gearbox and generator assembly taking up most of the space.

Windmill vs wind turbine different
Windmill vs wind turbine different

In scale

While windmills and turbines look similar, turbines are much larger. The blades of the wind turbine are placed between 60 and 100 meters high to take advantage of higher wind speeds. Windmills average from 40 to 60 meters high.

Working principle

A key difference is that wind turbines have blades, while windmills have sails. They are similar in appearance, but they are fundamentally different. The blades of the wind turbine create lift. They are shaped like flying boats, similar to the wings of an airplane. The sail of a windmill has more in common with the sail of a ship. They usually have a mesh frame and are covered with fabric. They are powered by resistance, which makes them less effective.

The number of blades is also a big difference between these two. Traditional European windmills have four sails, while wind turbines typically have three. Some types of wind turbines have two wings, but they tend to be quite rare.


The capacity of the windmill will be smaller than the wind turbine because the purpose of use is different. Windmill is used to generate mechanical energy, while a turbine is to generate electricity.

What is the key difference between them?
What is the key difference between them?

FAQ related to “windmill vs wind turbine”        

Which is better: windmill or wind turbine?

 The competition between windmill vs wind turbine efficiency is completely obvious. Wind turbines are more modern, so they will produce a greater operating capacity. But depending on the purpose of use, you will choose a windmill or wind Turbine. If the purpose is to generate electricity, the wind turbine is better.

Windmills are mainly used to grind grain or pump water, and wind turbines are used to generate electricity. Wind turbines are also larger and more aerodynamic than windmills.

Can I call a wind turbine a windmill?

You can’t confuse these 2 concepts because it’s clear that wind turbines and windmills look the same but are completely different. These two types differ in structure, scale, purpose, and many other aspects. Hence, you can’t call a wind turbine a windmill.

The article “Windmill vs wind turbine – what is the difference?” has just shared information about the difference between windmill vs wind turbine. It is clear that the two concepts are now completely different so the reader needs to grasp the difference between them. Basically, both generate energy, with windmills generating kinetic energy, while wind turbines generate electricity. Hope you find this article helpful to your question.


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