Wind turbines with sails were used for grinding corn, sawing wood and pumping water all around the world for centuries. After Michael Faraday’s work developing electricity in the 1820s and 1830s, wind turbines offered an alternative way of generating power. The first practical demonstrations happened by the end of the 19th century.
The world’s first megawatt-size wind turbine, connected to the local electricity network, was operating in the US in 1941. This was the Smith-Putnam wind turbine in Castleton, Vermont. But it was the widespread petrol shortages and inflated prices caused by the 1970s energy crisis that prompted the US government to develop large commercial wind turbines. In partnership with industry and NASA, its aim was for the nation to be less reliant on fossil fuels, especially oil, in the future.
In December 1980, the company US Windpower installed the world’s first wind farm on Crotched Mountain, New Hampshire. It consisted of 20 wind turbines rated at 30 kW (kilowatts) each, generating a total capacity of 600 kW. At the time, its output was equivalent to 5,000 barrels of oil per year.
When President Reagan cut government funding for alternative energy, businesses looked for other sources of financial support. Encouraged by California’s federal tax incentives, US Windpower moved its base of operations and began building windfarms in the mountains there. Further local tax breaks brought about the ‘California Wind Rush’, making the state the sole producer of America’s wind-generated energy.
Turning up the power
At Altamont Pass, near Livermore, California, a windfarm comprising 6,200 turbines was commissioned in 1981. But this was only the beginning. In the first half of the decade, commercial wind power roughly doubled year on year. By 1984, 15 wind farms were up and running, producing enough electricity to power 146,000 homes.
Many of these Californian wind farms’ turbines were manufactured in Denmark. When federal energy tax credits expired, the US lost the initiative in wind energy to Europe. In Germany and Denmark favourable wind conditions prompted the construction of many wind farms both on and offshore. Today, Germany boasts Europe’s largest wind market, while Denmark produces over 40% of its energy from wind with a goal of 50% by 2020. By comparison the US generated just 4% in 2014.