Humans must have learned to use the wind to their advantage from the beginning of their existence for the simple reason that it is available in plenty and easy to make use of.
However, using mechanical devices like windmills and sailboats to harness wind energy for specific purposes came much later. After the industrial revolution and the advent of fossil fuels, most of the traditional energy resources like wind energy were forgotten.
In the 20th century, when we started searching for renewable energy resources, wind energy along with solar energy started gaining popularity. To make it more efficient and user-friendly, more and more research happened and newer wind energy technologies were developed.
Now, we have an array of applications for wind energy.
This article offers you a short tour of the history of wind energy, along with its pros and cons. Here you will also find some of the most compelling examples of the applications of wind energy in our daily lives.
Historical facts about wind energy
Humans have made use of the blowing winds in numerous ways in their daily lives from time immemorial. It is believed that the Egyptians used the wind to move boats along the Nile River as long ago as 5000BCE. There is evidence of the use of wind power to run water pumps in China and windmills for grinding grains in Persia.
The first written mention of windmills is in the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian legal text composed circa 1755–1750 BCE. King Hammurabi planned to use the wind for powering irrigation.
By the 11th century, wind pumps and windmills were extensively used in agriculture in the Middle East. Soon this technology was brought to Europe by merchants and crusaders. By the 13th century, windmills for grinding grains became common all over Europe.
The Dutch were the first in Europe to adopt wind power to work water pumps. They built huge windpumps to drain marshes and lakes in the Rhine River Delta. As Europeans crossed the Atlantic to reach America, they brought with them windmills and windpumps.
Besides windmills and windpumps, the early settlers in America used wind energy to power sawmills and even generate electricity using small wind turbines in the early 19th century. Wind energy technologies remained popular in the US until the rural electrification program gained momentum in the 1930s.
Progress of wind power technology
The first wind turbine to generate electricity was built by James Blyth in Scotland in 1887. A year later, in 1888, inventor Charles Brush built a massive wind turbine to supply electricity for his mansion in Ohio.
Poul la Cour, a Danish scientist, refined the wind turbine by adding a regulator to stabilize the power generation. By 1900, almost 2500 windmills were set up across Denmark with a combined capacity of 30 MW.
Georges Jean Marie Darrieus, a French aeronautical engineer, patented a vertical-axis wind turbine design called the Darrieus wind turbine in 1931. This is used even today in niche applications like boats.
The same year, a horizontal-axis wind turbine was built in Yalta. This is similar to the ones we use today. In 1941, the first utility-scale wind turbine, the 1.25-MW Smith-Putnam wind turbine, was erected in Castletown, Vermont.
In 1957, Johannes Juul made a significant invention to increase the efficiency of wind turbines. The horizontal-axis wind turbines he built had emergency aerodynamic tip breaks, which are still in use today.
The oil crisis of 1973 prompted more research in the US and Europe on renewable energy resources. Wind power started getting a fair share of attention at this point. When NASA took over the wind turbine program, the share of wind power in electricity production started showing an upward trend.
Though the oil crisis soon got resolved, the world woke up to the fact that burning fossil fuels is harmful to the environment and we will soon run out of them. The focus was on renewable energy resources with emphasis on their cleanliness, renewability, and sustainability.
The federal government started offering tax and investment incentives to promote the adoption of wind energy among residential and commercial energy consumers. The success of this is evident in the fact that the share of wind energy rose from 1% in 1900 to 8.4% in 2020.
Elsewhere in the world, the progress of wind energy is more noteworthy. China is way ahead in wind energy capacity at 288 GW as of 2020. The United States, Germany, India, and a host of European countries are also in the race to adopt wind energy.
Types of wind turbines
Wind turbines are basically of two types – ones with a horizontal axis and others with a vertical axis.
Horizontal axis turbines
These are the traditional and most common wind energy systems. They usually come with three thin, large blades. Some are even built with two blades. Their appearance is similar to that of airplane propellers.
Vertical axis turbines
This is a newer technology, developed much later to meet the needs in specific situations. Unlike horizontal axis turbines, their blades are wider and smaller. They are similar in appearance to electric beaters.
Advantages of wind energy
The fuel used in wind turbines comes free of cost, unlike fossil fuels. Generating electricity using wind power is one of the cheapest choices available today.
Unlike fossil fuels, wind turbines do not give rise to pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. By switching to wind energy, we can hope to reverse the environmental damages created by burning fossil fuels.
The concept of sustainability was first proposed in the Brundtland Report in 1987. It means meeting our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. As the wind gets replenished as we use it, it is both renewable and sustainable. As long as the sun is shining, heating the land and air, the wind will blow.
It offers job opportunities
Like any new sector, the wind energy industry also creates job opportunities for tens and thousands of people. From manufacture, transportation, installation, and maintenance, the wind energy industry needs a sizable workforce. This is expected to grow in the coming years. In fact, a wind turbine technician is one of the fast-growing job profiles in the US.
It can co-exist with crops
Wind energy systems can be set up in existing farms and ranches without much disturbance to their regular activities. This can boost the earnings of farmers and ranchers. They can also consider renting their unused lands to wind energy projects to gain income from the properties.
Challenges of wind energy
It’s high on investment
Although newer technology has brought down the cost of wind energy installations, competing with other renewable and non-renewable resources makes it hard.
It’s not reliable
Wind energy projects are ideal in windy places. This means it is not suitable in some parts of the world. Even in windy locations, the wind doesn’t always blow with the same intensity. Its reliability is a question mark.
It has a large land footprint
Though wind energy systems can co-exist with farming and ranching, they still take up considerable land space. Unless the profits gained from wind turbines are high enough, landowners will be tempted to look at other uses for the land like agriculture and solar panels.
Remote locations make it challenging
The presence of wind, availability of land, and other conditions may force the construction of wind farms in remote locations. Then, the challenge is to draw transmission lines to bring the generated energy to the grid. This is more challenging with offshore wind farms.
Noise pollution and aesthetics
The turning of the turbine’s blades causes a whirring sound 24×7. This can be annoying and lead to health issues for people in close vicinity due to lack of sleep. The presence of a great many turbines across the landscape can also be visually unappealing.
It can adversely impact local wildlife
When trees are cut down to make place for turbines, birds and animals lose their natural habitat. Large wind farms can create a break in the migratory pathways of animals. Offshore wind power plants can disrupt the lives of marine birds and animals.
6 wind energy examples
Wind energy can be harnessed using a turbine. As the turbine turns, it converts wind energy into mechanical energy. This can be put to use in diverse situations. A turbine is not always necessary to capture wind energy.
Let’s see the top 6 applications of wind energy. We will begin with the traditional uses of wind energy and move on to more modern applications.
Most probably, wind energy was first used to propel sailboats. Modern boats using wind power for sailing are nothing like their ancestors. These are sleek and lightweight with easy-to-handle sails, making them more maneuverable. The latest in this genre is cargo sailboats or sail ships. Cars and hov pods running on wind energy are the next in the line. Though still in the design or construction stage, these offer immense opportunities for utilizing wind power.
2. Pumping water
One of the first uses of wind energy was in water pumping. Though with the spread of rural electrification, some farmers continued the use of free wind energy to do the work for them. Now, with the soaring utility rates and a dwindling supply of fossil fuels, it is time to go back to the traditional way of pumping water.
3. Milling grain
Another ancient use of wind energy, windmills are still relevant in providing free electricity and reducing the carbon footprint.
4. Power generation
In today’s world, when we are desperately searching for choices to replace fossil fuels in energy generation, wind energy offers a credible alternative. Wind energy can effectively combat both the drawbacks of fossil fuels – limited supply and pollution and carbon emissions.
Wind energy is renewable and it has the least carbon footprint among all energy resources. While onshore wind farms emit 11 gms CO2/kWh, offshore wind installations account for 12 gms CO2/kWh. This is incredibly low even among renewable energy resources. Solar energy, for instance, emits 40 gms CO2/kWh. Coal emits 950 gms CO2/kWh, while it is 245 gms CO2/kWh for oil and 185 gms CO2/kWh for natural gas.
The cleanness and greenness of wind energy together with its renewability and sustainability make wind energy the perfect replacement for fossil fuels.
Wind energy-based sports activities are in much demand both for recreation and in the competitive field. Many adventure sports activities like windsurfing, kiteboarding, land windsurfing, kite surfing, sailing, parasailing, hang gliding, paragliding, … the list is pretty long. The more traditional sports activities using wind are kite flying, parachuting, and skydiving.
6. Home energy solutions
Wind energy is usually used in utility-scale wind farms. But the same technology can be brought down to a smaller scale and used to meet the energy demands of households. Just like installing solar panels on rooftops, wind energy systems can be built to provide you free energy if you live in a windy location.
If you have sufficient space to set up enough wind turbines, it is possible to meet your complete energy demand with it. Or else, you can opt for covering partial energy needs. Either way, adding wind energy into the equation can cut down your energy bills considerably.
In case you are reluctant to install a large wind turbine, you can even have smaller ones to power your smaller devices or power your battery.
Wind energy is a great resource that should be tapped into more. It is a cost-effective and environmentally friendly source of power that is quickly becoming more popular in the United States. It’s time to start using wind energy to power our homes and businesses.
There are many ways to take advantage of wind energy, from small-scale turbines installed in your backyard to large offshore wind farms that generate power for an entire region. If you’re interested in reducing your carbon footprint or saving money on your energy bill, wind energy may be the right choice for you.