Utilization of the wind for motive power has a long and rich history. Wind-powered sailing vessels were known to ply the Nile river somewhere between 3 and 5 thousand years before the common era (BCE.) Although there is no direct evidence, it is quite possible that sailing craft could have been employed 50 thousand years ago to populate Southeast Asia and Australia.
Stationary power production in the form of lifting water has been dated to a few centuries BCE. Similarly, the wind was used for motive power to grind grain. The use of wind turbines in the Netherlands is legendary. By the 14th century CE, the Dutch were making extensive use of wind turbines to pump water out of the Rhine river basin to recover and maintain dry land. There is a reason this part of Europe is referred to as the “Low Countries.”
The history of wind for the generation of electrical energy is of course much younger. In 1877 Professor James Blythe in Glasgow, Scotland erected a 10-meter tall cloth-sailed wind turbine connected to batteries to light his cottage. Small scale isolated wind-powered electrical production has been in use around the world, including early twentieth-century Midwestern United States. Centralized power delivered via rural electrification in the 30s replaced virtually all small systems.
The modern era of electrical power production began in the 70s following the formation of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) and subsequent oil price shocks and embargoes. The price of crude oil skyrocketed and shortages of gasoline forced rationing. Later years saw the federal government subsidize wind power with grants and production credits. In 1990 less than one percent of total electrical energy in the United States came from wind. Currently is over seven percent.
The real change in wind power is the size of the turbines themselves. The earliest modern turbines averaged 50 kW, enough to power only a handful of homes. Also, these early turbines were erected on derricks which made for attractive roosting sites birds, especially raptors which led to unacceptable bird kills. The development of monocoque supporting towers have greatly reduced but not eliminated bird kills.
By the start of the twenty-first century, the average turbine size increased 30 fold. These giants produce about 2 MW. Simple calculations show that the midwestern United States could easily produce all the electrical needs of the country except for the distribution problem – most Americans live near the coasts far from the windy central United States.
The real expansion of wind power will occur with off-shore installations. Most off-shore wind is now located in shallow near-coastal areas, but plans for real behemoths on floating towers are in the works. Each of these 20+ MW plants, taller than the Eiffel Tower, can provide energy for tens of thousands of homes.
Both wind energy production and potential continue to grow. The cost of energy production continues to drop and with the advent of large off-shore plants comes more reliability and less intermittency.