the future of megaprojects

the history of wind power

From a makeshift turbine in a Scottish cottage to providing power across the globe.
Today we a breaking down the history of wind power. 

1887: "The work of the Devil"

In a holiday cottage in Marykirk, Scottish Professor James Blyth built the first known wind turbine. He wanted to power the lighting in his cottage and in doing so, became the first inhabitant of a house to have electricity supplied via wind power. Ever. Unfortunately, when Blyth offered the surplus energy from his turbine to the people of Marykirk, they turned the offer down because electricity was simply “the work of the devil”. 

1891: Ashkov lights up

Picking up in Denmark, scientist Poul la Cour developed a wind turbine that he could use to supply a steady stream of power by utilising a regulator. By 1895, la Cour had employed his technology to convert his windmill into a “prototype electrical power plant” to provide electric light for the entire village of Ashkov. 

1903: Faster spinning, fewer blades

Continuing to break ground in the world of wind energy, Poul la Cour founded the Society of Wind Electricians. He wanted more hands on deck after his realisation that faster spinning turbines with fewer blades are more efficient than slower turbines with many blades. A huge leap indeed.

1941: Powering Vermont

A real breakthrough in wind energy took place – the world’s largest turbine (at the time) generated 1.25 megawatts to a utility in Vermont. Quite the leap from Blyth’s cottage. Though, it must have also been quite useful that the devil was no longer being given credit for electricity. 

1975: Reeling from the oil crisis

In 1975, the world’s energy markets were reeling following the oil crisis. Shortages and sharply rising costs put a stark end to what had been an easy energy fix from oil. It was time to look for a solution elsewhere.

1978: Presidential backing

U.S. President Carter signed the Public Utility Regulatory Act. In doing so, he made a point to highlight the need to increase the production and consumption of renewable energy sources. In particular, the role of wind turbines in energy generation was stressed. A significant moment for the U.S. wind energy industry.

1982: The California wind rush

A number of European agricultural manufacturers flew to California in September. They wanted to understand the wind energy market after California had installed the first utility-scale wind farms two years prior. Before the year ended, 25-30 turbines were shipped back to Europe for installation. Within a year, that became 350 turbines with a capacity of 20 MW. The ‘California wind rush’ had begun, and according to experts, “the modern wind energy industry was born“.

1985: Powering up

At this point in history, a typical wind turbine had a rated capacity of 0.05 MW (today, the average turbine capacity is about 2 MW onshore and 2-5 MW offshore). 

1991: Offshore wind is born

In Denmark, the first offshore wind farm was comissioned. The project, called Windby, contained 11 turbines which powered almost 2,200 households. Developed by Dong Energy (Now Ørsted), Windby lasted for over two decades (far longer than expected) and served as an invaluable laboratory in which Danish power companies could gain technical expertise.

2000: Wind energy really takes off

The wind market energy boomed throughout the 2000s. This is the decade where commercial and economic viability would be realised on a mass level. Policy decisions were taken globally to support the development of the wind power market.

2007: A record breaking year

20,000 MW of wind energy was installed in one year – representing about USD $37bn in investment. At this time, oil prices rose once again to over $100 per barrel, with coal and gas reaching historically high levels alongside it. It was the perfect time for wind power to continue its expansion.

2011: Breakthroughs & innovation

Innovation in wind power continued apace. At Japan’s Kyushu University, Professor Yuji Ohya and his team created a series if wind turbines with the potential to generate 2 to 3 times the power from traditional models. The breakthrough was evidence that after over a century of innovation, our ability to harness the the power of wind energy is constantly growing.

2017: Floating offshore wind

By 2017, the power of wind turbines had officially increased by 102% over the previous decade. Additionally, the North Sea became home to the world’s first floating offshore wind farm, which would go on to break records for UK energy output. 

2020: "The best year in history" (for wind power...)

According to the Global Wind Energy Council, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, “2020 was the best year in history for the global wind industry, showing a year-over-year (YoY) growth of 53%“. Despite understandable disruptions, over 93 GW of wind power capacity was installed worldwide – bringing global wind power capacity up to 743 GW.

2021: Powering the future

After a spectacular 2020, the wind power market had really gained ground. In 2021, it was estimated that by 2030, cumulative global wind power capacity will have hit over 1,756 GW. This means the cumulative annualise growth rate of wind power capacity between 2021 and 2030 will likely be 9%.

From humble beginings to a literal global powerhouse, the history of wind power gives us high hopes for the industry’s future. Importantly, we are excited about the role of our AI in getting us there faster.  

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Madeleine Jones Casey

Madeleine Jones-Casey

Content Lead at Foresight Works

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