History of Wind Energy

The wind has played a long and important role in the history of human civilization. The first known use of wind dates back 5,000 years to Egypt, where boats used sails to travel from shore to shore. The first true windmill, a machine with vanes attached to an axis to produce circular motion, may have been built as early as 2000 B.C. in ancient Babylon. By the 10th century A.D., windmills with wind-catching surfaces as long as 16 feet and as high as 30 feet were grinding grain in the area now known as eastern Iran and Afghanistan.

The western world discovered the windmill much later. The earliest written references to working wind machines date from the 12th century. These too were used for milling grain. It was not until a few hundred years later that windmills were modified to pump water and reclaim much of Holland from the sea.

The familiar multi-vane “farm windmill” of the American Midwest and West was invented in the United States during the latter half of the l9th century. In 1889 there were 77 windmill factories in the United States, and by the turn of the century, windmills had become a major American export. Until the diesel engine came along, many transcontinental rail routes in the U.S. depended on large multi-vane windmills to pump water for steam locomotives.

Farm windmills are still being produced and used, though in reduced numbers, and show no sign of becoming obsolete. They are best suited for pumping ground water in small quantities to livestock water tanks. Without the water supplied by the multi-vane windmill, beef production over large areas of the West would not be possible.

In the 1930s and 1940s, hundreds of thousands of electricity producing wind turbines were built in the U.S. They had two or three thin blades which rotated at high speeds to drive electrical generators. These wind turbines provided electricity to farms beyond the reach of power lines and were typically used to charge storage batteries, operate radio receivers and power a light bulb or two. By the early 1950s, however, the extension of the central power grid to nearly every American household, via the Rural Electrification Administration, eliminated the market for these machines. Wind turbine development lay nearly dormant for the next 20 years.

Following the OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973, interest in wind energy resurfaced in response to climbing energy prices and questionable availability of conventional fuels. Federal and state tax incentives and aggressive government research programs triggered the development and use of many new wind turbine designs. Some experimental models were very large. With a blade diameter of 300 feet, a single machine was able to supply enough electricity for 700 homes. A wide variety of small-scale models also became available for home, farm and remote uses.

In the 1970s there were nearly 50 domestic wind turbine manufacturers. Since then, the wind industry has undergone massive consolidation, resulting in less than a dozen domestic manufacturers in 1997. Roughly half of these deal exclusively with small-scale models. This consolidation followed the expiration of the tax incentives in the mid-1980s and the easing of the energy crisis, both of which reduced market demand. A competitive marketplace to weed out inferior products further contributed to consolidation.

Meanwhile, a new market for wind systems, “wind farms,” began in the early 1980s. This market evolved thanks in part to a new Federal law, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978. This legislation requires utilities to buy electricity from private, non-utility individuals and developers. California has been home to most wind farm development due to very attractive electricity buy-back rates and the availability of windy, sparsely populated mountain passes. As of 1997, nearly 2% of California’s electricity is generated by the wind. As the cost of the technology has continued to decline, other areas of the country, namely the Great Plains, Pacific Northwest and Northeast, are now beginning to see greater wind farm development.