The structure of blade tip vortices is recognized as a key issue in wind turbine aerodynamic modelling by many researchers in the field. In the search for an intermediate model between full Navier–Stokes and blade-element momentum simulations, this article presents a method using rotating actuator surfaces to model wind turbine aerodynamics. An actuator surface is a simple planar surface, porous to the flow, which is characterized by velocity and pressure discontinuities, whose action on the flow is achieved through an attached system of forces. These discontinuities and forces are determined from blade-element analysis and the Kutta–Joukowski relation. After implementing this concept in a three-dimensional CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) method, results are produced for the experimental rotors of NREL and TUDelft. The method is validated against both experimental measurements and the predictions of three other numerical models for wind turbine aerodynamic analysis. Qualitative and quantitative comparisons show that the actuator surface concept agrees well with the other numerical models. In addition to rotor aerodynamic analysis, the actuator surface concept can be used in the study of wake aerodynamics, or as the Eulerian flow solver in hybrid methods. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.