Thomas Edison and Charles F. Brush were born just two years and 70 miles apart in small Ohio towns strung along the Lake Erie shore. They both started out as backyard inventors, launched successful electricity companies that later formed the foundation of GE, and grew old as wealthy men. But while Edison’s ingenuity has never left the public imagination, Brush’s genius is only now starting to shine.

In 1887, Brush built the first power generating wind turbine in Cleveland, a 4-ton, 60-foot monster with 144 blades and a long, comet-like tail. It generated just 12 kilowatts of electricity – enough supply only two or three modern American homes – but offered a glimpse of the future.

imageThe world’s first wind turbine generated just 12 kilowatts of electricity. Brush built it behind his mansion, in the middle of a 5-acre backyard running along Cleveland’s fashionable Euclid Avenue.

Today, GE’s largest turbines tower 650-feet above the ground, span 25 stories in diameter, and produce 2.5 megawatts of electricity each. But engineers keep looking for ways to make them more productive and competitive, and to lower the cost of electricity. Andy Holt, general manager for projects and services at GE Renewable Energy, says that the advent of Big Data and the cloud, which stores and sorts the information collected from the turbines, allow engineers to step out in a new direction.

For example, new GE software and hardware technology called PowerUp allows wind farm operators like EDP Renewables to monitor performance in real time and boost power output by as much as 5 percent per turbine. This could translate to a 20 percent increase in profit.

EDPR plans to install the system at five wind farms in Oklahoma, Indiana and Illinois. The technology could squeeze as much as 420,000 megawatt-hours of extra electricity from the farms’ combined 402 turbines, enough to power 33,000 average U.S. homes. “That’s huge,” Holt says.

imageNew software could boost power output by as much as 5 percent per turbine. This could translate to a 20 percent increase in profit.

The system is using turbine data to manage the speed and the torque of the turbines, the pitch of the blades and the yaw of the nacelles. It is monitoring air flow and other parameters, and continuously “tuning” the turbines and looking for the best settings. “The technology gives us a bunch of dials and levers that let us tune the different elements of the wind turbine to make it operate at an optimal level,” Holt says.

That is something wind farm operators have been looking for. “At ERDP we like to be a leader in innovation and explore creative ways to make the most of our units,” says Brian Hayes, the company’s executive vice president. “Collaborating with GE has been a win-win for us.”

PowerUp is one of 14 new GE systems released last year that link wind turbines, jet engines and medical equipment to the Industrial Internet, an emerging digital network connecting people and machines with software and data.