Even though wind turbines are relatively new, the concept has been around for quite some time. Windmills have been around for millennia, and the modern wind turbine is loosely based on the traditional windmill design. With cutting-edge research pushing wind power to new heights, it’s important to learn about the first energy-producing turbines and the history behind their development.
The first electricity-generating wind turbine was built in 1887 in Scotland and was used to power a small cottage. The first large-scale wind turbine that resembles modern ones was built by the Soviets in 1931 and had a capacity of 100 kW. Today’s turbine was created by NASA and Danish researchers in the 1970s, laying down the technical foundations for today’s sleek and efficient designs.
Early Wind Power
Humans have been relying on the wind for thousands of years. From sailboats to windmills, the reliability of a strong breeze has carried humanity far and wide. The first known windmill was a vertical turbine invented in Persia, or present-day Iran, during the 7th century. These were used to grind grain and pump water. The design worked well, making its way to China, India, and eventually Europe.
The traditional European windmill became widespread around the year 1200. They became especially common in Denmark and the Netherlands, though they were also popular in England, Germany, and Spain. Like the vertical windmills of the Middle East, they were primarily used to mill grain. The use of the windmill sharply declined during the industrial revolution, as wind power was rendered obsolete in the face of coal-powered machinery.
The First Wind Turbines
The first electricity-generating wind turbine was invented in Scotland in July of 1887. Professor James Blyth of Anderson College built a 10 meter high turbine with cloth sails in the garden of his cottage. It was used to power an accumulator, a type of battery, which provided light to his cottage. He offered to give the extra electricity to his neighboring village of Marykirk, but they turned it down. Professor Blyth’s turbine was a vertical-axis Savonius turbine.
Just a few months later, Charles. F. Brush, an entrepreneur, engineer, and inventor, built a wind turbine in Cleveland, Ohio. The Brush turbine was a horizontal turbine, similar in appearance to a traditional windmill. It was quite large, with a rotor that had a 17 meter diameter mounted on an 18 meter tower. The rotor had 144 blades and rotated slowly. It had a capacity of 12 kW, and was used to either charge Brush’s batteries, or power the lighting and machinery in his laboratory.
In 1891, Danish scientist Poul la Cour built a wind turbine to power the lighting at a local high school in the small village of Askov. He invented a regulator for the turbine to help provide a steady supply of electricity and later used it to power the entire village.
In the early 20th century, small-scale wind turbines saw relative success in certain regions of the world. In Denmark, about 2,500 hundred windmills were in operation by 1900. In the American Midwest, a few million small windmills dotted the landscape, and were used to pump water and generate small amounts of electricity. Australia also saw small-scale use of wind turbines to power remote farms and post offices.
The 1930s saw the first experiments with utility-scale wind turbines. In Yalta, in the former Soviet Union, a 100 kW turbine was erected in 1931. It remained in service for about ten years. The tower had a lattice design and was about 30 meters tall. The rotor was 30 meters in diameter and had three blades, similar to today’s wind turbines.
The first MW scale turbine was built in Castleton, Vermont, in 1941. Built by engineer Palmer Putnam, the turbine had a capacity of 1.25 MW and was connected to the power distribution system on a nearby mountain. It remained functional for just over 1,100 hours, or about 45 days, before suffering a blade failure. The material shortage due to World War II prevented any repairs. No turbine of this size would be built for another forty years.
The Oil Crisis & Wind Power Research
Throughout most of the 20th century, the discovery of several large fossil fuel reserves put wind power on the backburner. Coal and oil became the fuel of choice for a rapidly developing world. The United States and Middle East became the largest oil producers, and suburbanization and car culture became the norm in Western countries. The global economy grew at an unprecedented pace until the 1970s, when the oil economy came to a screeching halt. Shortages in the oil supply caused prices to skyrocket. Having become heavily dependent on oil, the US government began to pour money into the development of alternative fuel sources. Wind energy once again came into the spotlight.
The NASA Experiments
Beginning in 1975, NASA spearheaded a multiagency experiment into wind power with the goal of creating utility-scale wind-powered infrastructure in the US. Between 1975 and 1996, a total of fourteen turbines were built and tested in various locations across the country. Some of the turbines built during this period were the largest to date. The largest of which, the MOD-5B, was the largest in the world when built in 1987. It had a rotor diameter of 100 meters and a 3.2 MW capacity.
The NASA wind experiments produced valuable results, and many of the concepts are being applied in the wind industry today. Engineers experimented with turbines of varying blade counts, including one and two-bladed turbines. The relationship between blade count, turbine stability, and efficiency helped create the three-blade standard used today. Other technologies pioneered by NASA include composite blade materials, steel tubular towers, and aerodynamic blade designs.
By the 1980s, oil prices had begun to drop, and wind energy became uneconomical. Companies that had partnered with NASA, like Boeing and GE, had pulled out of the program and ended commercial production of their turbines.
Altamont Pass Wind Farm
In response to the oil crisis, California began handing out tax incentives to encourage the development of wind farms. Several wind farms sprouted up across the state, most notably the Altamont Pass Wind Farm. Located in Alameda County just a few hours outside of San Jose, this represented one of the first major utility-scale uses of wind to provide electricity. Altamont Pass was the largest wind farm in the world both in size and capacity, and even today, the region has the world’s highest concentration of turbines.
The first turbines at Altamont Pass were built on lattice-type towers, which attracted nesting birds. This proved fatal to the animals and gave rise to the current debate around the dangers of wind turbines to birds. The old turbines have long since been decommissioned, though the wind farm’s location in prime bird habitat still makes it a threat to local wildlife.
At the same time that NASA was experimenting in the US, Danish engineers were conducting their own research. Beginning in the late 1970s, the Dutch constructed the world’s first multi-megawatt turbine in Tvind, a school for troubled youth. The red and white checkered turbine has a capacity of 2 MW and is still in use today.
Whereas American engineers were motivated by oil prices, the Dutch were spurred by climate concerns. They focused on mass-producing turbines to perfect aerodynamic efficiency while raising capacity. This lead to the nation having one of the most robust wind industries in the world. Early Dutch research teams were direct precursors to companies like Vestas and Enercon.
The Wind Power Explosion
After the lull in wind turbine research, climate concerns and advancing technologies gave rise to the current era of wind power. Since the 2000s, wind energy has been implemented in masse all across the world. Turbines became bigger, stronger, and more efficient. Researchers began perfecting blade design and making sleek aerodynamic blades that extract more energy out of the wind. Massive offshore turbines were developed, becoming common in the UK and the Netherlands. While countries like China and the US lead the way in total installed capacity, Nordic countries like Denmark and Sweden have excelled at using wind power to generate a larger percentage of their total energy needs.
The first wind turbines generated enough electricity to power small homes and generally weren’t very efficient. Still, they represented a major leap forward for powering our growing world. Unfortunately, fossil fuels drowned out interest in wind power, which took a backseat until the 1970s. Even then, wind power made an appearance only as a novel experiment, not a bonafide method of generating electricity. Wind energy gained renewed interest in the 2000s when the climate crisis came into the public eye. Today, wind power is the fastest-growing form of renewable energy, and modern wind turbines have come a long way from Charles Brush’s 12 kW wooden machine.
Frequently Asked Questions
The first electricity-generated turbines were built in 1887, just a few months apart. Professor James Blyth built a vertical Savonius-type turbine to power his cottage in Scotland. Later that year, Charles F. Brush built a 12 kW horizontal-access turbine in Ohio to provide electricity to his laboratory.
In the 1970s, research conducted by NASA and Danish engineers created the foundation for today’s modern turbines. The standards they set include three-bladed rotors, steel tube towers, and aerodynamically optimized blades.
The Altamont Wind Farm in Northern California was the first utility-scale wind farm that provided electricity to the public. It’s still in operation today, although most of the older turbines have long since been replaced.
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