Wind power is one of the oldest forms of energy. As early as 4000 BC, ancient civilizations around the world were using it to propel boats, pump water, and run simple machines for grinding grain and cutting wood.
However, wind power has gone beyond simple sailboats and quaint farmhouse windmills. It is now the second largest renewable energy source, and generates a global total of 837 GW electricity a year.
In this history of wind power, we will look at how the technology has developed, its impact on society, and how it is being used today.
How ancient civilizations used wind power
Unlike solar and geothermal power, wind power is relatively easy to harness with simple tools. So, ancient civilizations were already able to use it to meet their basic needs.
The earliest wind-powered machine is the sail boat. Historians believe that as early as 4000 BC, Egyptians hung cloths on long, narrow log boats to carry supplies on the rivers.
The idea quickly spread to the rest of the region. Boats became larger and more powerful, crossing oceans and leading to exploration, trade, conquest, and the exchange of ideas and cultures. From the context, wind power played a critical role in the growth of civilization, and helped set the foundation for globalization.
Machines and instruments
In 1 AD, mathematician Heron of Alexandria invented a wind-powered organ. A piston forced the air through the pipes, creating sounds similar to the flute. While this was mainly a novelty instrument, it was the first time wind power was used on a mechanical device.
In the 7th to 9th century, farmers in eastern Persia (now known as the Sistan region of Iran) built windmills made of clay and wood and blades woven from reeds. These were used to pump water for irrigation, and to grind flour and corn.
The early windmills had a vertical axis, and blades that move parallel with the wind (a design that is now called a Panemone windmill). The idea then spread to China and then to Europe in the 11th and 12th century, mainly through merchants or knights that passed through Iran while fighting the Crusades.
Windmills soon became a regular fixture in Europe, some parts of Asia such as China and Japan. Aside from agriculture, people used them to make salt, drain lakes and marshes, cut wood, and supply water to herds and livestock.
Later on, when immigrants from these countries began to colonize America, they brought the technology to the New World and built thousands of small wind mills on farms and homesteads across North America.
While windmills varied in size and material, all used the basic principle of the blades driving cogs and rings to push a water wheel or grind stone. In 1854, Daniel Halladay invented a “self-governing” windmill that would adjust to wind direction and speed. Modern windmills still use a similar motion-sensitive technology.
Wind catchers / wind scoops
Ancient courtyard homes in North Africa and West Asia had wind towers that funneled the air into the roofs and subterranean rooms. This natural cooling system is actually being adapted in some modern homes for energy-efficient design.
The invention of the wind turbine
Wind turbines convert wind energy into electricity. As the wind flows along the blades, it producing air pressure on its sides for a “lift and drag” effect. The blade turns and causes the rotor to spin.
Unlike windmills, which rely purely on the spinning motion to move machines, wind turbines are connected to a generator that converts the kinetic energy to electric energy. Horizontal-axis turbines have three blades that look like airplane propellers) at the top of a tall vertical rotor. Vertical-axis turbines are typically shorter, and have blades that look like an egg beater.
The first wind turbine was invented in 1887 by the Scottish engineer James Blyth. It was 10 meters high, and generated enough electricity to power his cottage in Kincardineshire, Scotland. He offered to provide the surplus electricity to light the town’s main street, but his neighbors refused because they thought electricity was “the work of the Devil.”
Blyth’s wind turbine was battery-operated. A few months later, American inventor Charles F. Brush built an automatically-operated turbine, which was much larger and intended for large-scale electricity production. Some of the rotors had a diameter of 50 feet.
The turbines were effective, but expensive to build on a commercial scale. So, it was only used in remote areas that had no regular access to electricity, such as farmlands.
Then, in 1941, Palmer Putnam built the world’s first megawatt wind turbine in Vermont. The blades were 75 foot long, and could generate 1.25 megawatts of electricity. It could also feed this electricity into the grid, and work in conjunction with hydroelectric plants during times of the year when the winds were low or intermittent.
While Putnam’s invention was met with a lot of interest and praise, the timing was terrible. When World War II broke out, funds for researching and developing wind power were moved to other projects—including research on nuclear power, which could be used to make weapons.
Even after the war, the government initially focused on nuclear power plants for alternative energy sources. So, there was no large-scale movement to build wind farms or fast-track its development.
However, the invention of megawatt wind turbines signaled a turning point for wind power. It was now a commercially viable energy source. It just needed a convergence of factors that would encourage government support and large-scale commercial adaptation—and that is exactly what happened in the 1980s.
The rise of Wind Power
For many decades, wind turbines were used in country sides and other remote areas. The technology was tried and tested, and research had improved the power generating capacity and lowered the cost of construction. However, it was mainly seen as an alternative power source, and did not have a lot of government support or funding.
This changed in the 1980s onwards, because of two main factors: the rising prices of fossil fuels, and concerns about the environment. Governments across the world were looking for reliable energy sources that were cheap to produce, easy to set up, and could significantly lower carbon emissions and slow down climate change.
Wind power ticked off all those boxes. Unlike nuclear power, there was no risk of toxic waste and radiation that could harm people or the environment. Unlike hydropower, it could be installed in many locations—and even in offshore locations, where sea winds where strong.
With strong government and public support, wind power quickly rose to become one of the top sources of clean energy. In just a few decades, global wind energy capacity has reached 743 gigawatts. It is second only to hydropower, and is higher than solar and other alternative energy sources combined.
In 2020, wind power reached a record growth of 42%, and would have continued the trend if it weren’t for the pandemic. Now that economy has improved, and projects have been resumed, wind power is expected to pick up pace again.
Today, 115 countries use wind power, though more than 70% of the annual production comes from five countries: China, Germany, the United States, India, and Spain. More countries are expected to open their first wind farms, or increase their wind power production, because of the oil crisis triggered by the war of Russia and Ukraine, and the 2030 Net Zero goals set by the Paris Agreement.
Sources of modern wind power
In this history of wind power, we’ve seen how it’s come from small farmhouse windmills to one of the fastest-growing global energy sources. But how big and powerful are modern wind turbines? Can it really meet the world’s electricity needs?
Many wind farms use utility-scale turbines that are about 250 feet tall and can generate about 2.55 megawatts. That’s enough to provide electricity for hundreds of homes or large factories.
These farms usually located in remote areas with a lot of wind, but are connected to power grids that feed surrounding towns and cities.
Some distributed systems use smaller turbines that are 100 feet tall and can produce 5 – 100 kilowatts for local consumption.
Located near coastlines, these offshore turbines can reach up to 853 feet and produce as much as 13 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to meet the needs of thousands of homes and businesses.
While they are expensive and difficult to construct, these are rising in popularity especially in countries with limited land space and a lot of water territory, such as South Korea. Ocean winds are also strong and reliable, and unobstructed by skyscrapers and mountains.
The future of wind power: trends and new technologies
What is the next chapter in the history of wind power? Even now, there are trends and technologies that can improve the amount of power it produces, and make it easier and cheaper to produce and maintain.
Air-borne wind turbines
This technology will make use of components that are lifted with helium, or use large kite-like structures or complex air craft. While it is still in early stages of development, it looks promising—companies like SkySails Power have already announced successful working prototypes.
Air-borne wind turbines offer several advantages. Wind power is stronger at higher altitudes, because of higher wind speeds. It also requires less land space (the average wind farm must be at least 71 acres to produce a kilowatt), and does not need the construction of wind towers.
Air-borne wind turbines can also be anchored to barges, which can bring them to deep sea where ocean winds are very strong. During heavy winds, the kites can also be lowered to avoid damage.
A lot of wind hits the tower instead of the blades, which leads to “energy lost”. Wind-deflecting turbines increase energy efficiency and operating capacity by diverting the wind, allowing the blades to harness it and convert it to electricity.
Researchers are also looking into making artificial trees that harvest winds, and then convert it into energy.
While these trees are unlikely to match the energy production of larger wind-farms, these can take advantage of winds at lower ground, and can be constructed in cities and next to roads. Once successfully developed, it has the potential of transforming any space into a source of clean energy—while simultaneously beautifying the environment, and creating shade.
More efficient wind blades
Some researchers are focused on improving current turbine design to maximize power generation. For example, the Sweep Twist Adaptive Rotor (STAR) blade has a curved tip, and can increase energy capture by 12%. It is especially beneficial for slower wind speeds.
Adaptive windfarm simulators
These simulators make use of complex computer models to analyze atmospheric conditions and then adjust the turbine controls. The wind farm applications will typically record a wind farm performance, and then either make “smart recommendations” or automatically refine the system.
Initial studies have found that simulators can increase wind power output by at least 5%. It also allows system engineers to understand how wind turbines and energy systems work, which will reduce certification and testing time.
Traditional blade designs require producing a full-size model of the blade, called a “plug.” This process takes a lot of time, labor, and cost.
The U.S. Department has partnered with public and private firms to replace this step with 3D printing, which can help lower entry costs and make it easier and faster to set up wind farms.
3D Printing also makes it easier to develop better components, such as lighter rotor blades or more efficient drive trains.
Along with other research—led by private firms like GE Electric—wind power technology can develop at double or triple the rate than it did in the last few decades.
The Winds of Change
Just as wind power was the most important source of energy for ancient civilizations, it is taking an equally critical role today in modern society. Climate change and global warming have made it necessary to shift to clean energy sources, and new technology has made wind power more effective and affordable than ever before. The history of wind power is just beginning.