When Were Wind Turbines First Used?

When were wind turbines first used?

Wind turbines are used today to generate clean electricity. Modern wind turbines usually have three blades and operate similarly to airplane wings or helicopter rotors. When the wind blows, the turbine’s blades are forced into motion, converting kinetic energy from the wind into mechanical power. This spinning mechanical power can then be converted into electricity using a generator. Wind turbines can range in size, with small turbines used for residential or commercial purposes, and large utility-scale wind farms that consist of many huge turbines. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, wind energy is one of the fastest growing renewable energy sources in the world today.[1]

[1] https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/wind/history-of-wind-power.php

Early History

The use of wind power dates back over 3,000 years to ancient Persia, China and the Middle East. Some of the earliest windmills were used for grinding grain and pumping water. In Persia, windmills were developed with vertical axis designs that utilized wind-catching surfaces for speed rather than structural weight. China followed suit with sophisticated horizontal axis windmills for agriculture and irrigation, the foundations of which were made from bamboo. By the 9th century, windmills had spread across the region now known as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

These early windmills provide some of the first examples of harnessing natural wind power as an energy source. The simple and effective conversion of wind into rotational energy to perform useful tasks was an important precursor to the development of more advanced wind turbines in centuries to come.

Middle Ages

Windmills first began to appear in Europe during the Middle Ages. The earliest vertical-axis turbines were developed in Persia between 500-900 A.D. and used a system with six to twelve sails covered in reed matting or cloth material (https://brewminate.com/windmills-and-their-technology-since-the-middle-ages/). These early vertical windmills were used for grinding grain and pumping water.

In Europe, windmills with vertical axes were also developed during the 12th century. The post mill became popular which allowed the whole structure to pivot and face the direction of the wind. Windmills began to spread rapidly across Europe in the 13th century and were used for a variety of industrial purposes including grinding grain, pumping water, and sawing wood (https://www.historytoday.com/archive/english-medieval-windmill). The increased use of windmills marked an important step in the mechanization of tasks previously done by hand.

By the late Middle Ages, windmills were an established fixture across much of Europe. Their ability to automate grinding grains and other mechanical tasks was an important technological advancement that increased productivity.

Industrial Revolution

During the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, wind turbines evolved to provide more reliable power. In the 1700s, blacksmiths began experimenting with horizontal-axis turbines that could better capture the wind. One key innovation was the Windmill Regulation System patented by Edmund Lee in 1745, which allowed the turbines to automatically orient themselves to face into the wind (https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/wind/history-of-wind-power.php).

Horizontal-axis turbines become more common during this time period because they were simpler and more efficient than vertical-axis turbines. Models like the smock mill emerged, with a wooden tower and rotating cap that allowed optimal wind capture. Wind turbines were used extensively in agriculture to automate tasks like pumping water, sawing wood, and grinding grains (https://historyatnormandale.wordpress.com/2016/12/15/windmills-impact-throughout-industrial-revolution/).

20th Century

At the beginning of the 20th century, wind turbines started being used to generate electricity. One of the first electricity generating wind turbines was built in Scotland in July 1887 by Scottish academic James Blyth.[1] Blyth’s 10 meter high, cloth-sailed wind turbine was used to power his holiday home in Marykirk, Scotland. Though it only generated enough electricity for lighting in the cottage, it demonstrated the possibility of generating electricity from wind power. [2]

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, fossil fuels like coal and oil became the dominant sources of energy. But by the 1970s, the oil crisis and growing concerns about pollution from fossil fuels led to renewed interest in renewable energy sources like wind power. Danish engineer Johannes Juul pioneered modern wind turbine design in the late 1970s. His Gedser turbine was the first to combine three key features of modern wind turbines: three blades facing upwind of the tower, a horizontal axis rotor, and an active yaw mechanism to keep it facing into the wind.[3] This established the basic design for most wind turbines today.

Modern Wind Turbines

The development of modern horizontal-axis wind turbines began in the 1970s with advances in materials and engineering. NASA conducted extensive research into large wind turbines for electricity generation in the 1970s and 1980s. The MOD-0 demonstration turbine developed by NASA in 1975 had a 100 kW capacity. In 1977, NASA collaborated with the U.S. Department of Energy to build the MOD-0A and MOD-1 turbines, scaling up capacity to 2 MW and later 4 MW with fiberglass blades.

In the early 1980s, wind turbines with capacities over 1 MW were being installed in the United States. The MOD-2 wind turbine, developed through collaboration between NASA and industry partners, achieved a capacity of 2.5 MW with a rotor diameter of 90 meters when installed in Goodnoe Hills, Washington in 1982 (U.S. Department of Energy). The MOD-5B turbine, completed in 1987, reached a capacity of 3.2 MW with a rotor diameter of nearly 100 meters.

These large multi-megawatt horizontal-axis turbines established the modern wind turbine design, with steel tube towers, horizontal rotors with three fiberglass blades, and capacities over 1 MW. Advances in materials, engineering, and control systems enabled rapid scaling up of turbine size throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Today, offshore wind turbines with capacities over 10 MW are being installed around the world.

Growth of Wind Power

The global installed wind power capacity has seen tremendous growth in recent decades. According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), total installed capacity grew to 906 GW by the end of 2022, representing year-over-year growth of 9% (Global Wind Report 2023). The GWEC projects that 2023 will likely be the first year to exceed 100 GW of new wind power capacity added globally.

This growth has been driven by both increased capacity and improved efficiency. Larger and more powerful wind turbines are being developed, with average turbine sizes increasing from 850 kW in 2000 to over 3 MW in 2022 (IEA). Offshore wind farms in particular are utilizing larger turbines, with typical ratings of 4-10 MW. This allows them to maximize energy production from the stronger and more consistent winds found offshore.

In addition to larger sizes, turbine efficiency and capacity factors have also improved. Capacity factors increased from around 20-25% in the 1990s to over 40% for some of the latest onshore models and over 50% for offshore (Global Wind Power Tracker). Advanced blade aerodynamics, taller towers, improved material science, and sophisticated control systems have all contributed to optimizing power output.

These technology improvements have enabled wind power to become more cost-competitive with fossil fuels, supporting its accelerating growth worldwide.

Offshore Wind Farms

Offshore wind turbines were developed starting in the 1990s to take advantage of stronger and more consistent winds over oceans and large bodies of water. The first offshore wind farms were built in the early 1990s in Denmark and Sweden using onshore wind turbine designs mounted on concrete foundations in shallow waters.

The first offshore wind farm was the Vindeby Offshore Wind Farm built in 1991 off the coast of Vindeby, Denmark. It consisted of 11 Bonus 450 kW wind turbines mounted on concrete foundations in approximately 5 meters of water [1]. This demonstration project proved the feasibility of offshore wind farms and led to larger commercial projects in the following decades.

Offshore wind farms allow access to stronger and more consistent wind resources compared to onshore sites. Building larger turbines farther from shore has enabled greater energy generation. Floating foundations are being developed to access deeper water locations with excellent wind resources.

Future Outlook

The future outlook for wind power is one of strong growth and continued improvements in technology. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, wind power accounted for 22% of new electricity capacity installed in the United States in 2022, second only to natural gas.1 They project wind capacity to nearly double from 118 GW in 2020 to 224 GW in 2030. The DOE maps also show projected growth increasing in wind-heavy states like Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa, California, Illinois, and Minnesota.2

Globally, the International Energy Agency reports investment in wind generation increased by 20% in 2022, leading to expectations of significant growth worldwide. The offshore wind market is also rapidly expanding as technology improves. Larger and more efficient turbines able to generate more electricity are being developed. Innovation in blade design, drivetrains, floating wind platforms, and other areas will enable wind farms to be built further out to sea and in deeper waters.3 With projections of over 70% growth in wind power capacity globally by 2030, the future continues to look bright.

Conclusion

Wind energy has come a long way since its early beginnings. Windmills were first used thousands of years ago to grind grain and pump water. In the Middle Ages, windmills spread across Europe and were an important source of power. During the Industrial Revolution, wind was used to generate electricity for the first time. In the 20th century, small wind turbines provided electricity to rural areas. Modern wind turbines emerged in the 1970s and can now generate megawatts of clean, renewable power. The growth of wind energy has been remarkable, with wind farms spreading rapidly across the world. Wind is now one of the fastest growing renewable energy sources. With concerns about climate change and energy security, the future for wind power looks bright. Wind turbines will likely continue getting larger and more efficient. Offshore wind farms also have great potential to harness stronger and more consistent winds. While wind energy has come a long way, the technology still has ample room to grow and improve further. With the right policies and investments, wind power could become a major pillar of a clean energy future.

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