History Early Wind Power

Wind power has been utilized for thousands of years, starting with the invention of sail boats as the first and most obvious example of making use of wind energy.  The earliest known wind powered grain mills and water pumps were used by the Persians in A.D. 500-900 and by the Chinese in A.D. 1200.

The first windmill manufactured in the United States was designed by Daniel Halladay, who began inventing windmills in 1854 in his Connecticut machine shop.  The windmill was hugely successful as a means of pumping water on farms and ranches in the expanding western frontier, so much so that Halladay moved his operation to Illinois.  Additionally, the windmill played a key role in the expansion of the railroads because water was required for the operation of the early steam-driven engines.  Eventually, more than 1,000 small and large factories began operations to produce water-pumping windmills, with one company selling nearly 100,000 in one year at the peak of the market.  Between 1850 and 1970, more than six million mechanical windmills were installed in the United States.

Construction of the first windmills included four blades and a tail or weathervane device to turn into the wind.  Over time, safety devices were added to prevent high winds from destroying the windmill and its pumping equipment.  Further developments led to a multi-blade system, which is still manufactured today for pumping water.  Iron and steel slowly became the materials of choice because they require little repair.  The first all-steel windmill and tower was produced by the United States Wind Engine & Pump Co.

Wind Powered Electricity

The first electricity-generating wind turbine was invented in 1888 in Cleveland, Ohio by Charles F. Brush.  The turbine’s diameter was 17 meters (50 feet), it had 144 rotor blades made of cedar wood, and it generated about 12 kilowatts (kW) of power.

The incorporation of small, wind-powered electric generators by farmers and ranchers was not a difficult transition, given the longtime success of mechanical water-pumping windmills.  During the early 1900s, small wind turbines produced 5 kW to 25 kW of power.  They were used throughout rural areas in the United States to provide electricity to remote locations. 

On May 11, 1935, the United Stated Federal Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was created to promote the expansion of electrical service to rural areas where existing private electric companies would not expand, namely due to the high costs involved in stringing electric lines to remote farmsteads.  With the expansion of these power lines, farms received a more dependable, usable energy for a given amount of capital investment, and the electric wind turbine industry no longer was the first choice in rural electric power.

The Modern Wind Power Industry

The 1973 oil crisis forced the U.S. government to invest in renewable energy research and development programs. Federal funding grew throughout the 1970s, but dropped off during the 1980s.

During that time, however, California piloted the advancement of the wind power industry. Between 1981 and 1986, 15,000 turbines producing more than 1,000 MW of power were installed in the state. During the 1990s, the total power produced increased to 2,200 MW, representing half of the world's wind power. Europe, meanwhile, continued expanding its turbine production and output by installing more than 10,000 MW. By 2000, Europe was the world leader in wind energy manufacturing and installation technologies and capabilities.

Today, the wind industry is booming, due to rising energy costs and improved technology. Nearly 12,000 MW in the United States and 75,000 MW worldwide have been installed as of early 2007, with a projected growth of 26% by the end of 2007. Such potential growth means wind could become the second fastest growing energy industry, just behind natural gas.

With current tax credits, wind energy offers American customers the cheapest electrical energy option. At a cost of $35 per Megawatt hours (MWh), wind is cheaper than coal at $37 per MWh and natural gas at $50 per MWh (in 2004 dollars). Moreover, the cost of wind power continues to decrease as technology improves and competition increases. Coal and natural gas, meanwhile, will continue to require increased exploration, extraction, and exportation costs, in addition to anticipated future regulations for carbon control.


An illustrated history of wind power development

AWEA Wind Energy Works! Page

Danish Wind Industry Association

DOE EIA Renewables Page