History of Wind Energy: Humanities Quest for a Sustainable Future

The history of wind energy is a story about man kind’s ingenuity, and desire to understand and control nature. 

The human need to explore, travel and discover is what first drove our species to develop the early sail boats, which used the power of the wind to propel them. 

Then, during the early middle ages, we developed wind mills and other wind-driven devices to operate machinery and pump water. 

Wind power continued to develop and refined throughout each generation, and the evolution continues still today. 

It’s important to understand the history of wind power.

So, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of the steady progress to a more sustainable future for our species.

Historical German Wind Mill

History of Wind Energy: Antiquity

Humans have been using sailboats for at least 5, 500 years. 

That is a long time. 

And it is very interesting when one considers that this was the beginning of what we now see today in the world of wind power. 

They didn’t have the large wind towers like we do today, or the efficient little roof wind turbines. 

But, they did have the desire to learn, trade, and discover new parts of the world. 

And, for that, they needed a cheap and easy method to propel their boats and ships.

Wind power was the answer our ancient friends from antiquity discovered, and passed along to us. 

Here is a short list of interesting facts about wind power use during antiquity:

  •          The Babylonian emperor Hammurabi planned to use wind power for his irrigation project in the 17th century BC
  •          The wind wheel of the Greek engineer Heron of Alexandria in the 1st century AD is the earliest known instance of using a wind-driven wheel to power a machine

  •          Another early example of a wind-driven wheel was the prayer wheel, which  Tibet and China have used since the 4th century

History of Wind Energy: Middle Ages

The middle ages bring up images of brutal battles with swords being fought by a bunch of men with very bad teeth. 

But, in spite of all the surrounding violence, human kind was developing the first wind mills. 

The first known windmills originate in Iran, in a place called Sistan around the 7th and 9th century.  

They called them “Panemone windmills”, and had long vertical drive shafts with six to twelve rectangular sails covered in reed matting or cloth.They were used to grind corn, pump water, and used in the grist milling and sugarcane business. 

The use of wind mills became increasingly popular during this time. 

Northwestern Europe used vertical wind mills to grind flour in the 1180s.

China and Sicily used wind mills to pump sea water for salt making around 1000 AD.

History of Wind Energy: 19th Century

Jumping ahead to after the enlightenment, and while the industrialization of the world’s economies was under way, we started to see the first megawatt capable wind mills. 

In fact, by 1900 there were 2,500 mills in use. They used them for mechanical loads, and produced an estimated peak power of 30 MW. 

Wind mills for irrigation pumps became popular over in the American West between 1850 and 1900. 

James Blyth from Anderson College built the first wind mill that produced electricity. 

Blyth used the 33 foot high, cloth sailed wind turbine to power his cottage, making it the first home ever powered by wind energy.

History of Wind Energy: 20th Century

The history of wind energy during 1974 through the mid-1980s, had the United States government working with industry to advance wind technology and enable large commercial wind turbines.

The NASA wind turbines developed under a program to create a utility-scale wind turbine industry in the U.S.

With funding from the National Science Foundation and later the United States Department of Energy (DOE), a total of 13 experimental wind turbines went into operation, using four major wind turbine designs.

This research and development program pioneered many of the multi-megawatt turbine technologies in use today, including:

  • steel tube towers,
  • variable-speed generators
  • composite blade materials
  • partial-span pitch control
  • aerodynamic, structural, and acoustic engineering design capabilities.

The wind turbines developed under this effort set several world records for diameter and power output.

The MOD-2 wind turbine produced 7.5 megawatts of power in 1981.

In 1987, the MOD-5B was the largest single wind turbine operating in the world with a rotor diameter of nearly 100 meters and a rated power of 3.2 megawatts.

It demonstrated an availability of 95 percent, an unparalleled level for a new first-unit wind turbine.

The MOD-5B had the first large-scale variable speed drive train and a sectioned, two-blade rotor that enabled easy transport of the blades.

The 4 megawatt WTS-4 held the world record for power output for over 20 years.

Although the later units sold commercially, none of these two-bladed machines were ever put into mass production.

When oil prices declined by a factor of three from 1980 through the early 1990s, many turbine manufacturers, both large and small, left the business.

The commercial sales of the NASA/Boeing Mod-5B, for example, came to an end in 1987 when Boeing Engineering and Construction announced they were "planning to leave the market because low oil prices are keeping windmills for electricity generation uneconomical."

Later, in the 1980s, California provided tax rebates for wind power. These rebates funded the first major use of wind power for utility electricity.

History of Wind Energy: 21st century

Our look at the history of wind energy brings us to the beginning of the 21st century.

At the start of this century fossil fuel was still relatively cheap, but rising concerns over energy security, global warming, and eventual fossil fuel depletion led to an interest in all available forms of renewable energy.

The fledgling commercial wind power industry began expanding at a robust growth rate of about 30% per year, driven by the ready availability of large wind resources, and falling costs due to improved technology and wind farm management.

The steady run-up in oil prices after 2003 led to increasing fears that peak oil was imminent, further increasing interest in commercial wind power.

Even though wind power generates electricity rather than liquid fuels, and thus is not an immediate substitute for petroleum in most applications (especially transport), fears over petroleum shortages only added to the urgency to expand wind power.

Earlier oil crisis had already caused many utility and industrial users of petroleum to shift to coal or natural gas.

Natural gas began having its own supply problems, and wind power showed potential for replacing natural gas in electricity generation.

Where are we now?

Right now we are at the precipice of the Age of Wind!

As as some say: Generation Wind

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