Before recorded history no doubt mankind used wind power – we just don’t know how the very earliest users used it. But imagine the stone age scene: a child laughing as she watches the autumn leaves blown off a tree and catching them, just as today’s children play in the parks. A little boy flinging out his arms and letting the wind propel him faster – and faster. And did the adults of that far off time harness the wind to blow off the chaff. Perhaps to dry their fish, their wood or even their hair.

Some of Our Earliest Recorded Use of Wind Power

Some of our earliest records come from cave paintings in Sweden. They depict reed boats (7,000 years) and even older stone carvings by the old shores of the Caspian Sea. No doubt we will find other hidden treasures in time. Certainly, wind energy propelled boats along the Nile River as early as 5000 B.C.

Egyptian Funeral boat - 1422-1411

Egyptian Funeral boat – 1422-1411

An illustration from the tomb of Menna, scribe of the king,. it shows a funeral procession to Abydos. The boat carried the body of Menna and his wife to Abydos, the place consecrated to the god Osiris. Date circa 1422-1411 BCE

By 200 B.C., simple windmills in China were pumping water. And vertical-axis windmills, with woven reed sails, were grinding grain in Persia and the Middle East.

And then there is the power of prayer. As the wind drives the prayer wheel or flutters the flags, thousands of prayers are released.

Prayer flags in Tibet

Prayer Flags in Tibet

Wind Power Spread Around the Globe

New ways of using the energy of the wind eventually spread around the world. By the 11th century, people in the Middle East used windmills extensively for food production. Returning merchants and crusaders carried this idea back to Europe. The Dutch refined the windmill and adapted it for draining lakes and marshes in the Rhine River Delta. Settlers took this technology to the New World in the late 19th century. There they began to use windmills to pump water for farms and ranches. Then, in time, to generate electricity for homes and industry.

Trade and War

The beautiful swift sailing cutters – of which the top picture is one example, speeded up trade and made the whole world seem that little bit smaller. 

The Battle of Trafalgar, 1805

But imagine this world if Britain had not defeated Napoleon, at sea in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. While superior gun power was a factor, the ability to manage the sails and harness the wind also had something to do with it. Nelson used wind power to steer an unexpected route to the French fleet, and overcome a superior force.

Lassithi Plateau Windmills, Crete.

Lasithi Plateau now

Lasithi Plateau

This is what it looks like today, but in the1950s, there were approximately 13000 windmills with a total installed power of above 5MW. They pumped water for the crop in the hot, dry summers and at this time it was the largest wind power plant in the world.

It was a major tourist attraction. Just imagine – thousands of light, white sails dancing in the breeze, watering the crops. It must have a been a magnificent sight.

The Coming of Electricity

American colonists used windmills to grind wheat and corn, to pump water and to cut wood at sawmills. With the development of electric power, wind power found new applications in lighting and heating buildings. Buildings remote from centrally generated power could generate their own electricity from the power of wind. Throughout the 20th century, small wind plants were developed.  Farms and residences benefited from them.  Then we produced larger utility-scale wind farms that could be connected to electricity grids.

Grandpa’s Nob

During World War II, the largest wind turbine known in the 1940s, a 1.25-megawatt turbine that sat on a Vermont hilltop known as Grandpa’s Knob, fed electric power to the local utility network.

Oil and the Price of Energy

Wind electric turbines persisted in Denmark into the 1950s. These were ultimately side-lined due to the availability of cheap oil and low energy prices.

But the oil shortages of the 1970s changed the energy picture for the U.S. and the world in general. It created an interest in alternative energy sources, paving the way for the re-entry of the wind turbine to generate electricity.

The United States Government worked to advance wind power

From 1974 through the mid-1980s, the U.S. government worked with industry to advance the technology and enable development and deployment of large commercial wind turbines.

Large-scale research wind turbines were developed under a program overseen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to create a utility-scale wind turbine industry in the United States.

With funding from the National Science Foundation and later the U.S. Department of Energy, 13 experimental turbines were put into operation using four major wind turbine designs. This project pioneered many of the multi-megawatt turbine technologies in use today. And the large wind turbines developed under this program set several world records for diameter and power output.

example of large wind farm

Example of a large wind farm

Oil Prices and Tax Incentives

In the 1980s and early 1990s, low oil prices threatened to make electricity from wind power uneconomical. Yet in California, wind energy flourished. This was partly because of federal and state tax incentives that encouraged renewable energy sources. These incentives funded the first major use of wind power for utility electricity. The turbines clustered in large wind resource areas like Altamont Pass. Even so, today we would consider these turbines, as small and uneconomical by modern wind farm development standards.

While wind energy’s growth in the U.S. slowed dramatically after tax incentives ended in the late 1980s, wind energy continued to grow in Europe. In part, this was due to a renewed concern for the environment.  Scientific studies predicted changes to the global climate if the use of fossil fuels continues to increase.

Today, wind-powered generators operate in every size range, from small turbines for battery charging at isolated residences to large, near-gigawatt-size offshore wind farms which provide electricity to national electric transmission systems.

The Global Wind Energy Council Report 2016

Some of the achievements this report lists are encouraging:

  • 15th May 2016 – combined wind and solar power provided Germany with almost 100% of its energy needs.
  • One windy day in August – wind power exceeded the whole of Scotland’s demand for energy.
  • Wind turbines provide over 40% of its electricity from wind turbines.
  • In America, wind energy had increased by 2.5 times relative to five years before.

And with the infinite variety in location, in the design of the wind sail and the advances in storage techniques, wind power will continue to improve, adapt and better serve the world in the coming years.

And What of the Future?

There had been a dramatic change in how people view renewable energy. Politicians were working with industry to bring down prices so that renewable sources of energy were not only competitive but actually cheaper than conventional fossil fuel sources.

Of course, as we are all aware, politicians change, policies are altered – but nothing can alter the supreme power of wind. It is becoming easier to harness this power. Technologies are improving, prices are dropping, and the wind will always be with us.


%d bloggers like this: