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Wind energy

From the first Ancient Egyptian vessels, pushed by the hot desert breeze to cross the Nile, to the windmills that first inspired Cervantes for his masterpiece, Don Quixote, right up to modern-day wind turbines: the history of wind energy is overflowing with inspirations and insights.

About wind energy

The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Be it on land or at sea, from the very dawn of time, mankind has harnessed wind power to perform actions that proved impossible by physical strength alone. On land, wind power was channeled by windmills to grind wheat or pump water from deep wells. At sea, wind has inflated the sails of boats and crafts of all sizes, giving humankind the chance to wonder beyond the great blue yonder.

Don Quixote, the protagonist of Miguel Cervantes’ masterpiece, is probably one of the all-time faces of wind power. As he challenged Spain’s windmills, the knight errant was testament to wind power’s established presence in seventeenth century Europe. Although time had to fast forward by two centuries before by the end of the nineteenth century, humankind developed the capacity to harness electricity resulting from the change in pressure between two air masses.

Technological evolution and innovation were instrumental in the development of wind energy, leading to modern-day wind turbines. Based on data from a 2019 report drafted by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), wind energy currently ranks in second place among renewable energy sources with 564 GW-worth of installed capacity and counting: wind power accounts for 5% of global energy production, a figure which has doubled over the last 10 years. 

History of wind energy

From sea to land, going through space

Sails to the wind

Back in the dawn of mankind, the eastern part of the Mediterranean was already a hotspot for wind power, as ancient Egyptians used it to maneuver vessels along the river Nile. 

The first windmills


Iran and Afghanistan is where the first vertical-axis windmills appeared on the world stage. These contraptions had blades moving around a drive shaft perpendicularly mounted on the ground. 

Europe’s evolution

The Netherlands was the first European country to pioneer the use of horizontal-axis windmills, which is the set-up we got to know to this day. More efficient and advanced compared to their vertical counterparts, these models were used to grind cereal, mill olives and water fields.  

Halladay’s breakthrough

American engineer Daniel Halladay built the first windmill to autonomously adjust its bearing based on the changing wind direction. Halladay’s windmill was also able to calibrate the inclination of blades to keep a constant rotational speed. 

Fiat lux

Scottish engineer James Blyth invented the first wind turbine for energy production purposes. Blyth managed to set up the contraption in his own backyard and even offered to offload any excess electricity to light up the main road of the hamlet of Marykirk. Alas, the locals refused such an offer because they thought electricity was “the devil’s work”.

The wind turbine

The current definition of “wind turbine” is the brainchild of American inventor Charles Brush.

Danish efficiency

Danish scientist Poul la Cour engineered a wind turbine to power rural areas of the United States. Most of all, la Cour was able to demonstrate how turbines with a lower number of blades achieve higher rotation speeds and are thus more efficient than turbines with a greater number of blades which have a lower rotation speed.

The wind factory

Joe and Marcellus Jacobs opened the “Jacobs Wind” factory in the American city of Minneapolis, manufacturing wind turbines for all farms that lacked a direct access to the power grid.

Mill or eggbeater?

French engineer Georges Jean Marie Darrieus patented his namesake vertical-axis wind turbine, the Darrieus. Its name comes from the characteristic shape reminiscent of a eggbeater, hence, the “eggbeater windmill”.

The world’s biggest turbine

Palmer Cosslet Putnam built the world’s largest turbine with a total capacity of 1.250 kW, placed on top of Grandpa’s Knob mountain in the American town of Castleton, Vermont. Once connected to the grid, it could supply electricity to the town’s 700 inhabitants. 

A little help from space

The US Department for Energy provided funding for a large-scale manufacturing project of wind turbines. NASA was involved from the onset, manufacturing 13 experimental wind turbines that paved the way for today’s commercial wind turbine technology. 

The world’s first wind farm

In 1980, the world’s first wind farm went online in the American state of New Hampshire. Boasting 20 turbines, this trailblazing project didn’t meet expected results, although only one year passed before the 7.5mW Mod-2 wind farm was able to demonstrate once and for all the feasibility of large-scale wind turbine arrays.

A global resource

Wind turbines for energy generation are now a common sight throughout the world, having reached a global installed capacity of 17.4 GW by the year 2000. In the last 10 years, the cost of wind technology has lowered dramatically, making it cost-competitive compared to traditional energy sources. These factors spurred an exponential growth, propelling wind energy over 500 GW to this day. 

How wind energy works

Wind blowing, energy flowing

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The basis of wind energy stands in harnessing wind’s power through a wind turbine, the modern-day version of old windmills.

When the wind blows with adequate intensity, its power moves the blades that activate a rotor located inside a casing structure called the nacelle.

The rotor’s motion is then transferred to a gearbox that accelerates its rotation and transfers it to the alternator, tasked with transforming mechanical energy in electricity. During the entire process, a control system performs checks on all nacelle components, ensuring operations are running smoothly.

Once an electrical current is generated, it’s transferred through a power cable towards a transformer that collects all energy generated from each individual turbine of the wind farm and subsequently dispatched to the power grid.

Wind turbine

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Wind farm

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Strong points of wind energy

One resource, many prospects

Downward costs

The energy generation cost by megawatt/hour of wind energy as plummeted over the last years: wind is a limitless resource and widely available throughout the planet.

Green jobs

The wind energy sector employs about 1.2 million workers. The demand for skilled workers is on the rise: by 2030 over 18 million new jobs will be created worldwide by the green economy.

A second life

The average lifespan of windfarms stands between 20 and 25 years: once the infrastructure is decommissioned, many parts may be successfully recycled to guarantee a new life for its components.

Did you know?

A celebration of wind

Wind energy is the only renewable energy source privileged enough to have its very own day of worldwide celebration, called the Global Wind Day. Each year on June 15, WindEurope, GWEC (Global Wind Energy Council) and EWEA (European Wind Energy Association) unite with trade associations and utilities to showcase guided tours, shows and exhibitions where wind energy is the sole protagonist.

Global Wind Day’s first edition was celebrated in 2007 with 18 participating countries and 35,000 people attending local events. Since then, attendance levels and events have grown exponentially in size, in no small part thanks to a 2019 photographic contest that showcased over 600 pictures in 50 different countries.

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