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Wind turbines through history, from a Mediterranean mill to advanced designs.

by Darrell M. Dodge, Littleton, Colorado

The historical and technical information in this section is derived from many sources. Information on developments since 1975 is based primarily on my personal experience with the U.S. Federal Wind Energy Program, my extensive reading (and editing) of wind energy journals and research reports over the last 25 years, my conversations with wind energy researchers, interactions with members of the wind energy community, and my personal view of wind power developments and of the wind industry. Opinions expressed here are my own, of course. -- DMD


The Case for Wind Power

For human development to continue, we will ultimately need to find sources of renewable or virtually inexhaustible energy. It's difficult to imagine this, but even if we find several hundred or even thousand years of coal and natural gas supplies (and found a way to use them without warming the planet), what will humans do for the next 5,000 years or so after they are depleted? Even the most apparently "inexhaustible" sources like fusion involve the generation of large amounts of waste heat -- enough to place damaging stress on even a robust ecosystem like Earth's, at least for the organisms that depend upon stability of the system to survive.

We are engaged in a sort of world-wide chemical-biological experiment, with our descendents as the subjects. Our present habits of energy use are shaping an entirely different earth than the one with which we are familiar. These changes are now beginning to be expressed. There is no one to preserve the familiar and there's no guarantee that things will turn out the best for our particular species. Some had looked ahead and seen this. But they usually didn't get much support from societies that are too busy trying to "make do" and that are rushing backwards into the future -- in other words, virtually every society on earth. We are paying the price.

One of the areas that suffers because of this backward thinking is the development of renewable energy sources -- and the topic of this section: Wind Energy Conversion.

There's a lot of underlying popular support for wind energy and the other renewables in the United States. But there's also a lot of apathy as well. We are blissfully sedated by low conventional energy prices and are gulping down the few remaining years of cheap natural gas, fracked oil, and Middle East oil. As we do this, the inertia of climate change is inexorably building.

What drives the continued development of mechanical devices like wind turbines in the face of this widespread lack of support? In the case of wind turbine technology, I suspect that part of the reason for persistence of this vision is how accessible wind turbines are to the understanding. They are personal in a way that almost no other form of power generation is.

This "personal" scale has been both the blessing and the curse of wind power development. The field tends to attract people who are committed, creative, and passionate. It also still attracts a few people who are a little too much of all of those things, to the point that sometimes the grounding of reality is lost. Both of these tendencies will be evident in this brief history of wind power development. Wind power is finally succeeding because of the ability of its serious proponents to bank the fires of "Romance." Unfortunately, there are still people peddling perpetual motion machines and ideas that are too good to be true: electrostatic wind converters, tethered wind turbines, magical augmenters and other concepts that distract us from focusing on defining wind generation's role as a practical alternative to conventional generation sources.

Wind energy conversion is a fascinating field to study, if only because its past has been so checkered and its exact future is so uncertain. Unlike the aerospace industry, the computer industry, and almost any other successful industry you can name, wind energy -- the leading mechanically-based renewable energy for much of man's history -- has never made anyone rich for long. But unlike many of these other industries, it has been around for thousands of years. It's a technology that has been reinvented numerous times. We are left with the promise and the drive to succeed despite daunting (and sometimes puzzling) obstacles.

NEXT: Early History

NEXT | 20th Century | Government Programs | Recent Developments | The Future

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