October 31


History of Wind Energy

By windenergyfoundation.org

October 31, 2020

Wind power has been harnessed throughout human history. The earliest recorded evidence of wind energy being used dates to around 5000 BC in Egypt, where the sail was invented to catch the wind and propel boats along the River Nile.

The First Windmills

It wasn’t long before more uses were found for this free and plentiful source of energy, and simple windmills were created to pump water and grind grains across China and what is now the Middle East, becoming a major form of food production. Over time, the idea was harnessed by the Roman Empire and other European countries, thanks to merchants and crusaders bringing back the idea from their travels. In the Netherlands, the windmill was adapted and used for draining lakes and marshes around the delta of the River Rhine, which often flooded.

Wind Power in America

In the late 19th century, windmill technology was taken to America by colonists, where they were used on farms and ranches to pump water. Later, they were used to grind wheat and corn, and to cut wood at sawmills. After the development of electric power, windmills were used to generate electricity to power residential and industrial sites. In the 20th century, wind plants started being developed to power farms and homes, eventually growing in size and being connected to electricity grids as a central power source for lighting.

Large-scale Energy Production

In the 1940s, during World War II, the largest known wind turbine of the time, a 1.25-megawatt turbine known as Grandpa’s Knob, produced electric power for the local utility network in Vermont. Over the following decades, the use of wind power declined in favor of cheaper energy sources such as oil, until the 1970s, when the US started suffering from oil shortages. This prompted interest in alternative and renewable energy sources, and people began to look back towards wind power.

In the 70s and 80s, the US government worked with industry leaders to develop and create large commercial wind turbines. National Aeronautics and Space Administration oversaw large-scale research programs into wind turbines suitable for generating power for utilities, which pioneered many of the multi-megawatt turbine technologies still in use today. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy, 13 experimental turbines were created using four major designs from this research. These turbines set several world records for both diameter and power output.

Over the next decade, oil prices dropped significantly, putting the use of wind power at risk. However, federal and state tax incentives for using renewable energy sources saw the use of wind power flourish, leading to the first major use of wind power to generate utility electricity. Although they seem small and uneconomical by modern wind farm standards, these clusters of turbines in areas such as Altamont Pass were the start of large-scale renewal energy in the US.

The end of tax incentives in the late 80s meant that the growth of wind energy in the US slowed dramatically. This was not the case in Europe, however, where concern was growing about the link between the usage of fossil fuels and climate change.

Wind Power Today

Today, generators for wind power are more commonplace. Generators in all sizes are used around the globe, from the smallest which are used for charging batteries at isolated residences, all the way up to huge offshore wind farms that provide electricity to national electric transmission systems.
Watch the US Department of Energy’s time-lapse graphic to see the history of wind farm growth in the US.

Watch the US Department of Energy’s time-lapse graphic to see the history of wind farm growth in the US.

If you would like to see what some of America’s historical windmills looked like, you can visit  the American Wind Power Center Museum in Lubbock, Texas, which is home to over 100 rare and unique windmills. The Center is the premier educational facility for windmill heritage, where you can not only learn about their history, but also view them in a realistic setting. The Windmiller’s Art Gallery boasts a large collection of photographs, models and drawings in addition to rare windmill artefacts. The Center is also home to the WINDSMITH museum store, which sells a unique variety of windmill-related keepsakes.


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