History of Wind Energy

The History of Wind Energy & Turbines

For centuries, man has been harnessing the power of the wind. The history of wind energy3 dates back centuries, yet it still intrigues us and challenges us.

We have all heard the stories of brave sailors setting off on adventures while being driven by the wind. Even in 5000 BC, ships used the wind to sail along the Nile. The Emperor of Babylon attempted 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.

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.

Related: A brief history of solar energy & the history of hydropower.

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 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. One of the earliest mills found in the UK dates back to 1185. 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 to use the natural power surrounding 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, progress was made at the end of the 19th century, and the barriers between wind and wind electricity 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 energy3. Photo Credit: Vincent Versluis

The Original Wind Turbine

In 1887, a Scottish Engineer, Professor James Blyth, was the first to produce wind turbine technology. The Professor set up upwind sails in his garden, and by using accumulators that Frenchman Camille Faure developed, he used wind generators to power lights in his home.

The success was a breakthrough; he offered to power his neighbors' houses. Despite the progress, his offer was not as widely accepted as many might think. However, his discovery and the use of wind power were 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 is said to be the first wind turbine to generate electricity and could power about 100 light bulbs. Pay close attention to the man mowing the lawns in the bottom right of the picture to get an idea of how big it was. 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 could 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 turned his initial invention into a prototype power station that harnessed wind power.

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 utilized the wind for power.

The Point of Change in the History of Wind Energy

The 20th century saw significant advances in technology and the uptake of wind turbines. While many still felt it could not be used to power towns and cities, farms began to use wind turbines.

The technology was changing, and wind turbines were produced with blades similar to propellers found on airplanes. This made them easier to manufacture and construct as they were smaller. In terms of electricity production, wind turbine generators could also produce around 3 kilowatts of electricity.

Due to their size, the installation was simple and 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 energy3 was starting a new chapter.

Growing Capacity

Then, in 1941, the first-megawatt wind turbine was built during World War II, known as the Smith-Putnam turbine2. This was a huge feat of engineering as it had a rotor blade with a diameter of 175-foot making it the largest wind turbine of the time. This helped to generate 1.25 megawatts of electricity.

As progress crossed the Atlantic, Germany and, once again, Denmark started to develop advanced wind turbine technology. The aim was to find alternative electricity generation means to counteract Europe's ever-increasing price of fossil fuels.

The fuel crisis in the 1970s saw a big change and significant growth in wind power.

State governments announced plans that they had to consider alternative sustainable and efficient energy sources. As a result, a NASA-based research and development program was established in 1975 in order to search for an energy source we could use on a large scale. At the time, this program set several records for the diameter and power output of the large wind turbines it developed.

At the turn of the 1980s, technology was improving, and governments were promoting the idea of cleaner energy sources for electric power generation.

In 1993 the US opened the National Wind Technology Center, a lab tasked with researching and pioneering wind energy technologies to compete with non-renewables.

The Wind Turbine of the 21st-Century

Wind Energy Turbines Cloudy Skies
Wind Farms are now a familiar sight. Photo Credit: Cassie Boca on Unsplash

The 21st century brought with it another shift in the use of large commercial wind turbines. They soon became a common sight, and they began generating valuable electricity. Large wind farms were created, and the offshore wind farm was 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 considerable push from the government, whereby it wanted the UK to lead from the front regarding renewable energy.

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

Wind Turbines - What Does the Future Hold?

When it comes to renewable energy sources, wind power is one of the most reliable and effective sources.

The future of renewable energy relies on the development and emergence of new technology1. While there are those, who call them a blot on the landscape, today's multi-megawatt turbine technologies sometimes produce enough electricity to power a fifth of the UK's needs and around 10% in the US. Modern wind turbines might not be pretty; however, the latest wind energy facts demonstrate they are serving a purpose, and that is where the real change lies.

Wind power output 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 energy3 and fascination with harnessing the wind has brought us to where we are today. The desire to continue to develop this technology will enable it to provide power to more homes around the UK and many other countries.

Companies, too, are increasing their use of renewable energy. Small wind turbines installed in your nearest mall or industrial site car park will become more common.

During the early years, its development was very slow. However, the progression over the last 20 years has been nothing short of amazing. As our response to the climate crisis gathers pace, wind power projects are set to lead in renewable energy generation.

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
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Pin Image Portrait The History of Wind Energy
1Wind and Solar Power Systems, Design, Analysis, and Operation, Second Edition, By Mukund R. Patel, 2005, DOI https://doi.org/10.1201/978142003992
2Koeppl, G.W. Fri . "Putnam's power from the wind". United States.
3Pasqualetti, Martin & Righter, Robert & Gipe, Paul. (2004). History of Wind Energy.
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