Wind energy technologies are the most mature of all renewable technologies around. From pushing boats along water to lighting up cities, wind power has been harnessed in different ways for over 7,000 years and is now a leading source in the production of electricity.
But how has the technology come so far?
Let’s take a step back and see how wind power has become what it is today.
The first known people to harness wind energy were those sailing on boats across the Nile River as far back as 5,000 B.C. For thousands of years afterwards, people used wind energy in the same way.
It wasn’t until around 2,000 B.C. that the first windmill is thought to have been built. This machine was created in ancient Babylon and had vanes attached to an axis to produce circular motion, according to the Iowa Energy Center.
By 200 B.C., the Chinese produced simple windmills to pump water. Around this same time, people living in Persia and the Middle East used vertical-axis windmills to grind grain, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
In the 11th century, windmills were heavily used for producing food in the Middle East. At this time, the western world was finally starting to learn about the technology.
European crusaders and merchants brought the idea of windmills back to Europe and their countries started using windmills for milling grain. Years later, the Dutch restructured these machines so that they could use them to drain their lakes and marshes. Settlers brought these windmills to the New World in the late 19th century and used them to pump water for growing crops.
Some years later, an entirely new purpose was found for these spinning contraptions.
Professor James Blyth of Anderson’s College created the first windmill used to produce electricity in 1887 in Glasgow, Scotland, according to the Guardian. The third of his turbine designs is said to have powered his home for 25 years.
The future was bright for wind energy, until new forms of power were developed.
Industrialization, first in Europe and then in America, caused the demand for wind turbines to severely decline. The steam engine replaced water-pumping windmills for trains and inexpensive electric power was adopted in rural areas.
But industrialization did create an interest in building larger windmills to generate even more electricity.
These machines, called wind turbines, popped up in Denmark as early as 1890, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The market for wind turbines fluctuated with the price of fossil fuels: when fossil fuel prices went up, the demand for wind turbines went up, and visa versa.
During the 1970s, prices for oil sky-rocketed due to oil crises, and interest in wind turbines soared too. People questioned oil’s availability and future prices, and countries wanted to become self-sufficient in regards to energy.
These issues and scientific research about global warming have motivated countries around the world to do a lot to push the production of wind energy forward.
Wind farms, or groups of wind turbines that produce large amounts of electricity that feeds to the utility grid, have become popular in the United States and Europe.
In 2007, the European Union decided to reach a target of generating 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
The U.K.’s own 2009 Renewable Energy Directive was put into place with a goal of getting 15 per cent of its energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020, up from 3 per cent, according to the U.K. government’s website. To promote the creation of wind turbines in its country, the U.K. government has created incentives for its citizens, including the feed-in-tariff scheme, in which people are paid for producing electricity from wind.
So where are we now?
Europe is currently leading the world in wind power generation, responsible for three quarters of the world’s production of wind-generated electricity, according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. More than 45 gigawatts (GW) of new wind turbines were built globally in 2012, according to the Guardian, and there has been more wind energy capacity installed than any other form of generation in recent years.
Wind power is at its height in electricity production and cost-efficiency right now. Wind-generated electricity is at the lowest price it has ever been (it’s as cheap as fossil fuels in some places) and turbines are more efficient than ever.