Windmill to wind turbine: an abridged history of wind power

Engineer sits atop of an enormous wind turbine (windmill)
Image: Shutterstock

Energy Source & Distribution editor Nadia Howland dons her history hat for this article, which begins way back in 1st century Greece where the first ancient windmill was brought to life.

1st century AD: Greek engineer Heron of Alexandria creates the first known wind-driven wheel to power a machine.

7th-9th century AD: Panemone windmills are used to grind corn, grind flour, and pump water in the Sistan region of Iran.

Panemone windmills

1000 AD: Windmills are used for pumping seawater to make salt in China and Sicily.

1180s: Upright windmills are used throughout North-western Europe for milling flour.

1887: The first known wind turbine used to produce electricity is built in Scotland by Prof James Blyth of Anderson’s College, Glasgow. Blyth’s 10m high, cloth-sailed wind turbine was installed in the garden of his holiday cottage at Marykirk in Kincardineshire, making it the first house in the world to have its electricity supplied by wind power. Blyth offered the surplus electricity to the people of Marykirk for lighting the main street, however, they turned down the offer as they thought electricity was the work of the devil.

1891: Danish scientist Poul la Cour develops an electricity-generating wind turbine and later uses a regulator to supply a steady stream of power. Four years later, her converts his windmill into a prototype electrical power plant, which was later used to provide electricity for the village of Askov.

1900: Windmills with a combined peak power capacity of 30MW are being used across Denmark for grinding grains and pumping water.

Related article: Aussie engineers improve wind turbine manufacturing and safety

Danish windmill

1903: Poul la Cour starts the Society of Wind Electricians. He is also the first known person to discover that wind turbines with fewer blades that spin faster are more efficient than turbines with many blades spinning slowly.

1931: A vertical-axis wind turbine design called the Darrieus wind turbine is patented by French aeronautical engineer Georges Jean Marie Darrieus.

1931: A horizontal-axis wind turbine similar to the ones used today is built in Yalta with 100kW of capacity, a 32m tower and a 32 per cent load factor.

1941: The first megawatt-size wind turbine is connected to a local electrical distribution grid. The 1.25MW Smith-Putnam wind turbine is raised in Castletown, Vermont.

1975: A NASA wind turbine program to develop utility-scale wind turbines begins. This research and development program pioneered many of the multi-megawatt turbine technologies in use today, including steel tube towers, variable-speed generators, composite blade materials, partial-span pitch control, as well as aerodynamic, structural and acoustic engineering design capabilities.

NASA experimented with wind turbines at Plum Brook in the 1970s

1975: The first US wind farm goes online, producing enough power for up to 4,149 homes.

1978: Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas produces its first wind turbine.

1980: The world’s first wind farm of 20 wind turbines goes online in Crotched Mountain, in southern New Hampshire.

1980s: Enertech begins building 1.8kW wind turbines that can connect to the grid.

1981: A second wind farm goes up in the US. Total US installed wind power capacity is now approximately 10MW, enough for approximately 8,575 homes.

1984: Enercon is founded. It eventually becomes Germany’s largest wind turbine manufacturer.

1987: A 3.2-megawatt wind turbine is developed by the NASA wind turbine program. It has “the first large-scale variable speed drive train and a sectioned, two-blade rotor,” which allows for easier transport.

1987: Australia’s first commercial wind farm, Salmon Beach Wind Farm near Esperance in Western Australia, is established. It was later decommissioned due to urban encroachment.

1991: The first offshore wind farm in the world is constructed in southern Denmark. It includes 11 wind turbines manufactured by Bonus Energy, each with a capacity of 450kW.

1991: The UK’s first onshore wind farm is constructed in Cornwall. The wind farm includes 10 wind farms that together produce enough electricity for approximately 2,700 homes.

2002: GE acquires Enron Wind during Enron’s bankruptcy proceedings. GE Wind Energy eventually becomes the #1 wind turbine manufacturer 10 years later.

2003: The UK’s first offshore wind farm opens in north Wales. It includes 30 wind turbines, each with a power capacity of 2MW.

2004: Vestas and NEG Micon merge. Afterwards, Vestas commands 34 per cent of the wind turbine market, far more than any other country.

2005: Global wind power capacity reaches 59,091MW.

2007: The UK announces plans to install thousands of offshore wind turbines, enough to provide electricity for every home in Britain by 2020.

2009: The first large-capacity floating wind turbine in the world begins operating off the coast of Norway. It uses a Siemens wind turbine and is developed by Statoil.

2009: The Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas becomes the largest wind farm in the world. It has a power capacity of 781.5 megawatts and includes 634 wind turbines. The title of world’s largest wind farm is now held by Gansu Wind Farm in China, which a target capacity of 20,000MW.

Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas

Related article: SA wind farms fined over statewide blackout

2010: The US Department of the Interior signs the first lease for an offshore wind energy project, Cape Wind.

2010: China passes US to become the country with the most cumulative installed wind power capacity in the world.

2016: Wind surpasses 82GW, making it the largest source of renewable generation capacity in the United States.

2018: There are now 94 wind farms in Australia, delivering nearly 16GW of wind generation capacity. 

2019: Vestas becomes the first company to install 100GW of wind turbines. 

2019: Coopers Gap Wind Farm in Queensland becomes the largest wind farm in Australia, with a capacity of 453MW.

Coopers Gap Wind Farm

2021: Australia’s main grid notches a new milestone, with record wind output of 5,430MW.

2021: German energy company EnBW selects the world’s largest offshore wind turbines–the Vestas V236-15.0MW–for He Dreiht, a 900MW offshore wind farm in the German North Sea.

The world’s largest offshore wind turbine, the Vestas V236-15.0MW

This story was adapted from Zachary Shahan’s original article in Renewable Energy World.