In a previous text, I described how wind power technology has evolved since it was first documented (circa 5000 b. C.) until just before World War II. This article focuses on the period between WWII and the present day.
From World War II to the early 21st century
Wind power technology underwent major changes and advances in two countries on different sides of the world – Denmark and the United States. And the reasons for this were very different: in Denmark, successive post-war governments wanted to keep promoting a countrywide energy generation system. A system that, as a consequence, would be independent from large power plants and would rely on a suitable distribution grid. As we saw in my previous article, this effort was first started in the first decades of the 20th century. As for the United States, we need to look to the severe oil crises of the 1970s as the initial reasons for the country’s investment in wind power. I will be analyzing this below.
In 1957, the Danish engineer Johannes Juul (1887-1969), a student of Paul le Cour (see previous article), installed a wind turbine with 24 meters in diameter, known as Gedser wind turbine (named after the city where it was installed). The turbine was in operation between 1957 and 1967. It had three blades on a horizontal axis, a design that was very similar to what we find in most wind farms across the world. For this reason, it is regarded as the first modern wind turbine. It produced 200 kW of power and worked with no disruptions or maintenance work for 11 years. You can see it in the picture:
In subsequent years and as a result of the two major oil crises in 1973 and 1979, the Carter administration in the United States promoted the use of renewable energy sources. This moment can be considered the starting point for the development of modern renewable technologies. In fact, this period saw the birth of the sector since some of the largest companies in the industry were founded then, e.g. Vestas (the world’s leading wind turbine manufacturer was founded in 1898, but its activity in the field did not begin until late in the 1970s) and LM Wind Power (founded in 1940, it started building wind turbines in 1978); as well as smaller companies such as Nordex (founded in 1985 and merged in 2016 with the Spanish Acciona), Nordtank or Micon (Nordtank was founded in 1980 and Micon in 1982; they merged in 1997 with the name of NEG Micon). And we shouldn’t forget the Spanish Gamesa, founded in 1976 (today it is called Siemens Gamesa, the world’s second largest manufacturer of wind turbines after Vestas).
Between 1975 and 1980, the National Science Foundation (the U.S. state research agency) and the Department of Energy rolled out several research and development programs. As a result of these efforts, the first wind farms in the world were installed in California in early 1980. They used wind turbines between 20 and 50 kW in capacity and were granted tax incentives (the “premiums”) for the production of power.
At the same time, in early 1975 the NASA kicked off a program for the U.S. Department of Energy designed to develop large wind turbines to produce electricity as a response to higher oil prices. Several of the largest wind turbines in the world were developed and commissioned under this pioneering program. The program was an attempt to boost the contemporaneous wind turbine technology and make it possible to develop a series of new ideas that the sector’s industry would subsequently adopt.
However, the commercial development of wind turbines based on these ideas was delayed due to a significant decrease in energy prices during the 1980s. In the end, none of the wind turbines were manufactured for commercial purposes but the turbines developed under the umbrella of the program led to many of the technologies of multi-megawatt turbines we use today. These technologies include variable-speed turbines, using composite materials to build the blades to make them lighter, aerodynamic blade design, etc. This figure shows the main turbines developed during the program:
The 21st Century
At the start of this century, fossil fuels were still relatively cheap. However, growing concern in countries with no energy resources for guaranteeing their energy supply, combined with global warming and the eventual exhaustion of fossil fuels, facilitated the general expansion of renewable energies. At first, these were strongly supported by countries such as Germany and Spain and later Italy, USA, etc. The incipient wind energy industry began to expand at a truly impressive pace (around 25% annually), boosted by the availability of major wind resources in large regions of the planet and by lower costs (improved technology and production premiums).
From 2002-2003, oil prices started to rise constantly, which reinforced the fear that the exhaustion of fossil fuels is increasingly closer. This has generated even more interest in wind power and, in general, renewable energy such as photovoltaic and thermoelectric.
Nowadays, renewable energies have shown their huge potential to replace fossil fuels in power generation at fully competitive prices. This development has resulted in extremely high installed capacity across the world, which is growing every year as shown the last figure in this article:
At the moment, wind power is the modern renewable energy with the most installed capacity on the planet (651 GW in late 2019), ahead of other alternatives such as photovoltaic, thermoelectric, tidal, geothermal, etc. In a new article, I will analyze the outlook for wind power at the present time. We currently don’t have the data for year 2020, nor on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on new wind developments. However, trends seem to confirm that renewable energies have been gaining traction across the world’s key regions: the arrival of the Biden Administration in the U.S.; the recovery plan designed in July 2020 by the European Commission, which places special emphasis on two key drivers: digitization and the decarbonization of the economy; the dominant role that China wants to keep playing in the energy market, etc. All these factors herald a future of consolidation and sustained growth for this source of energy. We hope this will be the case.
Professor of Electronics at the Complutense University in Madrid and member of the Spanish Royal Society of Physics