Wind Turbines may seem like a relatively new technology, but they’ve been around longer than you may think.
Mankind has been harnessing the power of the elements for hundreds of years – mostly with success.
The first recorded example of wind energy being used to drive a machine was in Alexandria in 70AD.
Even wind “power plants” are an ancient concept, the first being built to grind grain and draw in water in (what is now) Iran during the 7th Century.
From the German Crusaders of the 12th Century to the Dutch windmills of the 14th Century and the advanced turbines described in Croatia in 1595, wind power has always been fundamental to our advancement and technological development.
The first electricity-generating wind turbine was installed in the home of a Scottish academic in 1887 and a year later, the American inventor Charles F. Brush built the first automatically operated turbine in Cleveland.
It was 60 feet tall, weighed 4 tons and was powered by a 12kW generator. Electricity generation by wind turbines was seen as very cost effective by areas with scattered populations so it was popular in the US where.
By the time of World War 1, over 100,000 farm windmills were being produced each year.
The focus on fossil fuels – and then nuclear – meant that wind was always seen as a small-scale source of energy.
That was until the anti-nuclear protests of the 1970s prompted governments all over the world to think again and look at the possibilities that wind power could offer.
The first wind farm of five 20kW turbines opened on the Greek island of Kythnos in 1982.
National and international organisations, conferences, trials and funding schemes were established throughout the 1980s.
Denmark the forefront of the industry. Setting a target of 800-1,350 MW of wind energy by the year 2000, they built the largest wind farm in Europe (42 turbines) in 1990 and were the first to build an offshore facility of eleven turbines in Jutland.
The UK followed with its first farm in Cornwall in 1991, then Spain. France installed four 500 kW turbines in the Tramonte wind corridor in the Western Mediterranean.
By 1995, Europe’s wind capacity had overtaken that of the US and the industry was growing rapidly – even Iran, the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, ordered a wind farm in 1996.
1997 saw the international community recognise the importance of renewable energy. There were several global initiatives to establish targets and guidelines introduced.
The Kyoto Protocol aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5% by 2012 and the European Union set the goal of doubling their share of renewable energy and using it to produce 22% of their electricity supply by 2010.
World wind capacity moved past 10,000 MW in 1998.
In 2000, Denmark installed the first large-scale offshore wind farm in Middelgrunden. The UK’s facility opened in North Holye three years later.
Blades now being produced were 61.5m long and, in 2005, the Global Wind Energy Council formed with members from more than 50 countries.
Tax Credits and Incentives were introduced across the world to encourage the boom in the wind industry which, by 2007, overtook fuel oil to become the fifth largest form of power generation.
Wind power was now providing 2% of worldwide electricity and Europe accounted for 48% of the world’s capacity.
After the European Parliament’s energy committee agreed to dedicate €565 million to offshore wind projects in 2009, Hywind, the world’s first full-scale floating wind turbine started operations in the North Sea.
The UK government identified nine areas for windfarm developments around Britain’s coast that would produce a capacity ten times greater than Europe’s existing offshore wind energy.
In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, wind power became even more significant.
Germany announced plans to shut down all nuclear plants by 2022 and double the country’s share of renewable energies.
For the first time, the European Parliament voted to create a dedicated budget for wind energy research and development.
In 2012, the world’s largest offshore wind farm opened off the coast of Cumbria in the UK.
It cost £1bn, generated 367MW of electricity and covered an area equal to 20,000 football pitches.
The EU reached its 100GW milestone and wind became more widespread than nuclear to become the world’s fourth largest form of power capacity with more new facilities than gas and coal combined.
China overtook Europe for cumulative wind installations in 2016 and an EU Commission reported that onshore wind was now cheaper than coal, gas and nuclear.
Finally, on 22nd February 2017, Denmark became the first country to use wind to generate its entire power demand.
The industry continues to grow today. However, this also brings many new challenges.
Blades, for example, are susceptible to damage over time and can gradually wear out. They’re subject to bird strikes, lightning strikes and surface erosion from rain, hail, ice and insects – deterioration can cause reduced energy production in the early stages and complete collapse if left unnoticed.
Constant inspection and maintenance of turbines are essential, and it falls to new technological advances, such as the use of drones, to fulfil these essential tasks effectively.
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