History of Wind Energy

The History of Wind Energy

For centuries, man has been harnessing the power of the wind. We have all heard the stories of brave sailors setting off on adventures while being driven by the wind. Even in 5000 BC, ships were using the wind to sail along the Nile. The Emperor of Babylon made attempts to use the wind to run his irrigation system. However, perhaps the most remarkable progress came when the Persians used the wind to pump water and grind down grain. It seems as though, this could have been the turning point for man and his quest to use the wind to power machinery and save energy and effort. The history of wind energy6 dates back centuries, yet it is still intriguing us and challenging us.

A vast amount of research and development now underpins wind power and our fascination with it. It seems as though we will not stop until we have harnessed its power to the point where we generate electricity on a scale that can power huge cities or even whole countries. The advantages of renewable energy from wind are numerous. There are now even towns that receive all of their power from wind farms. - A glimpse into the future of wind-power as an essential type of renewable energy.

The History of Wind Energy and the First Windmills

Archaeologists made a fascinating discovery when they found the first panemone windmills. It was found that these dated back to 500 AD and had sails that were fixed around a central column. There is a belief that they were more of a decorative object as opposed to being used as a power source. However, with the 12th-century came significant developments. Europeans were using mills to work grain and even move water. In the UK, one of the earliest mills found dates back to 11855. The revolution had started so it seems.

The Dutch are well known for their fascination and ability to harness the power of the wind. By the 14th-Century, they were using the wind to power windmills and drain large areas of land such as the Rhine delta. This is proof of man pushing boundaries and seeking ways in which to use the natural power that surrounded him.

As the next few hundred years passed, the number of windmills increased at an incredible rate. Farming benefitted from windmills, allowing water to be drawn from wells, eventually leading to scientists and inventors considering the real possibilities of wind power. Eventually, at the end of the 19th century, progress was made and the barriers between wind and wind electric were broken.

We can still see old windmills today. In Holland even in cities. Typically used to grind flour, these majestic wooden structures were the precursors to modern wind farms. As such, they formed an important start in the history of wind energy6. Photo Credit: Vincent Versluis

The Original Wind Turbine

In 1887, a Scottish Engineer known as Professor James Blyth was the first person to produce wind turbine technology4. The Professor set up wind sails in his garden and through using accumulators that were developed by Frenchman Camille Faure, he used wind generators to power lights in his home. The success was a breakthrough and he offered to power the houses of his neighbours. Despite the progress, his offer was not as widely accepted as many might think. However, his discovery and the use of wind power was then used to supply power to a local asylum. While it was not a widespread uptake of his success, it was the beginning.

Across the Atlantic

Charles Brush's 1888 Windmill

Charles Brush's windmill followed closely Prof. James Blyth's version. Built in Cleveland Ohio in 1888 this then feat of engineering could power about 100 light bulbs. To get an idea of how big it was, pay close attention to the man mowing the lawns in bottom right of the picture. Photo Credit: Public Domain

In America, progress was moving quickly. They had scaled up the size of their wind turbines to the point where they had a rotor diameter of 50ft. While the turbine moved slowly, it still generated enough power to power the lights. Following this, in the same vein as Professor James Blyth, the idea of generating electricity through the use of wind was left behind. The creation of large power stations had the ability to generate electricity at a much lower cost and on a larger scale.

Denmark then laid down its marker and, thanks to scientist Poul la Cour, the development of multi-mega turbines began. He took his initial invention and turned it into a prototype power station that harnessed the power of the wind. By the time the 20th century arrived, Denmark was home to more than 2,000 windmills. Together, they were producing a combined 30 MW of power. As the dependence on fossil fuels grew, Denmark continued to develop the way in which they utilised the wind for power.

The Point of Change in the History of Wind Energy

The 20th-century saw significant advances in the technology and the uptake of wind turbines. While many still felt as though it could not be used to power towns and cities, farms were beginning to make use of wind turbines. The technology was changing and wind turbines were being produced with blades that were similar to that of propellers found on an aeroplane. This made them easier to manufacture and construct as they were smaller. In terms of electricity production, they could also produce around 3 kilowatts of electricity.

Due to their size, the installation was simple and they could be installed in larger numbers. This enabled them to generate more power collectively. As they took advantage of large farmlands, wind farms as we know them today were born in the United States. The history of wind energy6 was starting a new chapter.

Growing Capacity

Then, in 1941,  the first megawatt wind turbine was built, known as the Smith-Putnam turbine7. This was a huge feat of engineering as it had a rotor blade with a diameter of 175-foot. This helped to generate 1.25 megawatts of electricity. As progress crossed the Atlantic, Germany and once again, Denmark, started to develop technologically advanced machines1. The aim was to find an alternative to counteract the ever-increasing price of fossil fuels throughout Europe.

The fuel crisis in the 1970s saw a big change for wind turbine power. State governments announced plans that they had to consider alternative sustainable and efficient energy sources. As a result, a NASA based research program was established in order to search for an energy source that could be used on a large scale. At the turn of the 1980s, the technology was improving and governments were promoting the idea of cleaner energy sources.

The Wind Turbine of the 21st-Century

Wind Energy Turbines Cloudy Skies

Wind Farms are now a familiar site. Photo Credit: Cassie Boca on Unsplash

The 21st-century brought with it another shift in the use of wind turbines. They soon became a common sight and they began generating valuable electricity. Large wind farms were created and offshore wind farms were born and as the concern over greenhouses grew, the development continued further.

In the UK, wind farm development has moved on at a significant pace. The country is now leading the way with offshore wind farms, with enough farms to power 4.5 million homes. This followed a huge push from the government, whereby it wants the UK to lead from the front when it comes to renewable energy2.

In the UK there are more than 1,500 operational on-shore wind farms. Collectively, they generate enough electricity to power more than 7 million homes. This and the growth of offshore wind farms have turned the UK into a wind power, energy-generating machine.

Wind Turbines - What Does the Future Hold?

When it comes to different types of renewable energy, wind power is one of the most reliable and effective sources. The future of renewable energy relies on the development and emergence of new technology3. While there are those who call them a blot on the landscape, wind turbines are helping to support change. They might not be pretty but they are serving a purpose and that is where the real change lies. Wind power now has the capability to power millions of homes in the UK alone. This makes it a feasible type of renewable energy and one that can be heavily relied on.

Our long history of wind energy6 and fascination with harnessing the wind have brought us to where we are today. The desire to continue to develop this technology will enable it to provide energy to more homes around the UK and many other countries. Companies too are increasing their use of renewable energy. Wind turbine installations in the car park of your nearest mall or industrial site will become more common. Through the early years, its development was very slow. However, the progression over the last 20 years has been nothing short of amazing. So, attitudes towards wind farms and wind turbines need to change because there is no doubt that they are here to stay.

Modern Wind Turbines In Palm Springs

1Signs of Hubris: The Shaping of Wind Technology Styles in Germany, Denmark, and the United States, Matthias Heymann, 1940-1990
2David Toke, The UK offshore wind power programme: A sea-change in UK energy policy?, Energy Policy, Volume 39, Issue 2, 2011, Pages 526-534, ISSN 0301-4215, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2010.08.043.
3Wind and Solar Power Systems, Design, Analysis, and Operation, Second Edition, By Mukund R. Patel, 2005, DOI https://doi.org/10.1201/978142003992
4J. Price, Trevor. (2005). James Blyth – Britain's first modern wind power pioneer. Wind Engineering. 29. 191-200. 10.1260/030952405774354921.
5Power from Wind: A History of Windmill Technology. Richard L Hills. Cambridge University Press. 1994.
6Pasqualetti, Martin & Righter, Robert & Gipe, Paul. (2004). History of Wind Energy.
7Koeppl, G.W. Fri . "Putnam's power from the wind". United States.
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