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From Egyptian sailboats to wind farms in the Atlantic: The history of wind energy

Aug 15, 2023

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Editor’s note: You can access Straight Arrow News’ first special report on wind energy here. You can expect our next report on the topic in September 2023 at SAN.com and the SAN mobile app.

Offshore wind power has arrived in the U.S. In the coming decade, hundreds of giant spinning turbines will work to capture Atlantic Ocean winds, potentially powering 21 million homes in the future.

How did we get here?

Well, the idea of capturing power from the wind goes back thousands of years. As early as 5000 B.C., Egyptians harnessed wind to sail the Nile.

Between 500 and 900 A.D. Persians made vertical-post windmills out of clay, straw and wood for grinding grain. Amazingly, some of these are still in use today.

In 1,200 A.D. the Dutch were constructing trellis windmills more in the style we’re used to now, also for milling grains.

Hundreds of years later, in 1854, inventor and businessman Daniel Halladay patented the first commercially viable windmill. It could automatically swivel to face changing wind directions, and regulate its own speed.

By 1890, farmers and ranchers in the U.S. were using wind power to pump water and generate small amounts of electricity. 

That decade brought steel blades (1890) and a wind power appearance at the 1893 World’s Fair.

The 1970s oil crisis renewed interest in wind energy, and in 1978, former President Jimmy Carter signed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, which encouraged renewable energy production.

The first large wind farms were installed in 1980 in California.

In 1991, the world’s first offshore wind farm was built in Denmark.

In 2003, former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) made it clear in an opinion piece that he disapproved of an offshore wind project near Nantucket, writing “our national treasures deserve better.”

Of course, the Kennedy’s Hyannis Port property would have faced that wind farm, disrupting their ocean view.

By 2012, there were enough wind turbines in the U.S. to produce 60 gigawatts of electricity–enough to power 15 million homes.

In 2013, we took to the sea, as the U.S. developed its first grid-connected offshore wind turbine.

The first offshore wind farm, called the Block Island Wind Farm, was built in 2016.

In 2021, the first commercial scale project in the U.S. was approved.

As of summer 2023, steel is in the water for the first commercial scale project off of Martha’s Vineyard as foundation installation begins. Vineyard Wind expects the farm to be completed next year, generating electricity for more than 400,000 homes and businesses in Massachusetts.

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SHANNON LONGWORTH: OFFSHORE WIND POWER HAS ARRIVED IN THE U.S. IN THE COMING DECADE, HUNDREDS OF GIANT SPINNING TURBINES WILL WORK TO CAPTURE ATLANTIC OCEAN WINDS, POTENTIALLY POWERING 21 MILLION HOMES IN THE FUTURE.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

WELL, THE IDEA OF CAPTURING POWER FROM THE WIND GOES BACK THOUSANDS OF YEARS:

AS EARLY AS 5000 BC, EGYPTIANS HARNESSED WIND TO SAIL THE NILE.

BETWEEN 500 AND 900 A.D. PERSIANS MADE VERTICAL-POST WINDMILLS OUT OF CLAY, STRAW AND WOOD FOR GRINDING GRAIN. AMAZINGLY, THESE ARE STILL IN USE TODAY.

IN 1,200 AD, THE DUTCH WERE CONSTRUCTING TRELLIS WINDMILLS MORE IN THE STYLE WE’RE USED TO NOW, ALSO FOR MILLING GRAINS.

HUNDREDS OF YEARS LATER, IN 1854, INVENTOR AND BUSINESSMAN DANIEL HALLADAY PATENTED THE FIRST COMMERCIALLY VIABLE WINDMILL. IT COULD AUTOMATICALLY SWIVEL TO FACE CHANGING WIND DIRECTIONS, AND REGULATE ITS OWN SPEED.

BY 1890, FARMERS AND RANCHERS IN THE US WERE USING WIND POWER TO PUMP WATER AND GENERATE SMALL AMOUNTS OF ELECTRICITY.

THAT DECADE BROUGHT STEEL BLADES (1890) AND A WIND POWER APPEARANCE AT THE 1893 WORLD’S FAIR.

THE 1970’S OIL CRISIS RENEWED INTEREST IN WIND ENERGY…AND IN 1978, JIMMY CARTER SIGNED THE PUBLIC UTILITY REGULATORY POLICIES ACT, WHICH ENCOURAGED RENEWABLE ENERGY PRODUCTION.

JIMMY CARTER: “IF WE USE OUR TECHNOLOGICAL IMAGINATION, IF WE CAN WORK TOGETHER TO HARNESS THE LIGHT OF THE SUN, THE POWER OF THE WIND, AND THE STRENGTH OF RUSHING STREAMS, THEN WE WILL SUCCEED.”

LONGWORTH: THE FIRST LARGE WIND FARMS WERE INSTALLED IN 1980 IN CALIFORNIA.

AND IN ‘91, THE WORLD’S FIRST OFFSHORE WIND FARM WAS BUILT IN DENMARK.

IN 2003, FORMER SENATOR TED KENNEDY MADE IT CLEAR IN AN OPINION PIECE THAT HE DISAPPROVED OF AN OFFSHORE WIND PROJECT NEAR NANTUCKET…WRITING “OUR NATIONAL TREASURES DESERVE BETTER.”

OF COURSE, THE KENNEDY’S HYANNIS PORT PROPERTY WOULD HAVE FACED THAT WIND FARM, DISRUPTING THEIR OCEAN VIEW.

BY 2012 THERE ARE ENOUGH WIND TURBINES IN THE US TO PRODUCE 60 GIGAWATTS OF ELECTRICITY–ENOUGH TO POWER 15 MILLION HOMES.

IN 2013, WE TOOK TO THE SEA: THE US DEVELOPED ITS FIRST GRID-CONNECTED OFFSHORE WIND TURBINE.

THE FIRST OFFSHORE WIND FARM (BLOCK ISLAND WIND FARM) WAS IN 2016.

IN 2021, THE FIRST COMMERCIAL SCALE PROJECT IN THE US WAS APPROVED.

AS OF THIS SUMMER, STEEL IS IN THE WATER FOR THE FIRST COMMERCIAL SCALE PROJECT OFF OF MARTHA’S VINEYARD…FOUNDATION INSTALLATION HAS BEGUN. VINEYARD WIND EXPECTS THE FARM TO BE COMPLETED NEXT YEAR, GENERATING ELECTRICITY FOR MORE THAN 400,000 HOMES AND BUSINESSES IN MASSACHUSETTS.