Wind: A Hard-Blowing History

Some people may think of wind power as a new concept, but in fact humans have been relying on wind for travel and power for nearly 7,000 years. We wouldn’t be where we are today (literally!) if not for the energy derived from the wind.

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(L?l(?$B.C., the Egyptians used sails made of bundled reeds to propel their boats up and down the Nile, and later to fan out across the Mediterranean. In 1500 B.C., Asian voyagers used sails made of leaves to power their canoes across the Pacific. For better or worse, wind power enabled European sailing ships to set about conquering distant lands in the 15th and 16th centuries.

As agriculture developed in the Fertile Crescent, particularly the cultivation of wheat and other grains, wind power was used for grinding and irrigation. Some of the first archaeological evidence of wind used for milling grain comes from Persia around 500 to 900 A.D. Arab geographers traveling in Afghanistan in 700 A.D. wrote descriptions of windmills, which resembled our modern revolving doors.

Invading Mongolian armies in the 13th century brought Persian wind technology back to China by kidnapping the Persian windmill builders. European Crusaders invading the same regions also brought home wind technology. Over the next 500 years, these technologies were adapted and improved—causing an explosion in the use of windmills for irrigation and grinding grain. Windmills were also used to saw timber, grind minerals and oil seeds, process spices and cocoa, grind pigments into paints and dyes, and press tobacco. Wind power enabled the Dutch to drain their lowlands and build a nation that is largely below sea level.

In 1890, the Danes developed the first wind turbines to produce a commercial supply of electricity. Within 20 years, hundreds of wind turbines had popped up around Europe. In the U.S., wind power brought electricity to the Great Plains. Small, isolated farms used wind turbines to charge batteries, run radios and draw water from deep wells. Six million windmills were built across the U.S. between 1850 and 1970. Self-sufficiency soon gave way to the allure of fossil fuels and the promise of a great big electric grid connecting the entire country. Rural electrification became part of the New Deal. "Once electricity came from the grid, the wind market just died away," says Christine Real de Azua of the American Wind Energy Association. Fuel shortages in post-World War II Europe stimulated some new innovations—but none could compete in the marketplace with fossil fuels. The 1970s energy crisis, combined with new environmental awareness, spurred efforts in the U.S. to go beyond oil, gas and coal and into alternative fuels.

The 1980s subsequently saw a boom in wind energy, with most of the market being developed in California. New experimental technology was developed; some models looked like egg beaters, some had two blades, and others had three.

In addition to federal tax credits, California offered an additional state tax incentive for wind energy production. "In some places in California you could literally drive up to a windfarm, buy a share, and claim an investment tax credit," says Real de Azua.

The 1990s changed that. Oil prices fell dramatically and the political will to support wind power died.

The new generation of windmills is going up on former rangeland, exhausted oil fields, reclaimed coal mines and old farms. Farmers can now get royalties from wind turbines. As wind energy gains momentum, it becomes more sophisticated. Today’s windmills are entirely computerized, with sensors that allow them to turn into the wind to harness energy as efficiently as possible. An entire wind farm can be controlled by a single laptop.