“The Wind Bloweth where it Listeth:” The Past, Present, and Future of the US Wind Energy Industry (Part 1)

By Vernon Trollinger, May 9, 2013, Energy Efficiency, Green

modern wind farm wind turbinesDepending on who you talk to about wind energy and how it powers the electric grid, there’s bound to be… well, some spin. Much of the discussion centers the reliability of wind energy in terms how it meets base load compared the zero fuel cost and extremely low carbon emissions, as well as concerns about whether or not the wing industry can compete with other forms of energy fuels. With this new three-part series, we hope to provide a quality overview of the wind energy industry – its early development, how it operates now, and where the industry is heading.

In the first installment of “The Wind Bloweth where It Listeth,” we will start with the humble beginnings of the wind industry in farmers’ yards in the early 20th century and go all the way to the building of the first wind farms.

To many energy consumers, wind energy as an idea seems like a relatively new phenomena. Those folks aren’t too far off in that perception. It wasn’t until consumer demand for renewable energy and generator fuel costs increased in the late 1990’s that wind farms truly began to sprout up out of the ground in the middle of large tracts of farmland.

In fact, the early drive for using wind energy to make electricity actually began with farmers in the early 20th century. You see, from the 1890s into the early 1930s, about 90% of urban and suburban centers of America were powered by electric utilities, but in rural America, many had no electricity. Cows had to be milked by hand, clothes washed by hand, well water pumped by hand, and families still relied on kerosene lamps for light.

However, as more and more electric appliances (particularly radios) became available in cities, the more the demand for those devices grew in in the country. When electric utilities in the cites were unwilling to invest in running wires out into the country, a number of companies formed to offer generator systems for the farm. While a few of these were powered by petroleum-fueled engines, most generators relied on wind power. The two most successful companies selling these wind-powered generators were Wincharger and the Jacobs Wind Electric Company.

Dust in the Wind

The key feature about electricity usage in rural America between 1928 and 1935 was demand. Household demand, compared to the present day, was low because the really big electricity hogs like air conditioning and refrigerators hadn’t yet arrived on the farm, yet. Typical demand covered light bulbs for every room in a house and barn, well pump, washing machine, one or two smaller farm machines (e.g. milk separator), an iron, and (of course) a radio —all of which could be powered with less than 100 kWh/day. The initial cost for a steel tower, batteries, dynamo, and propeller could add up to $1,100.

However, while that sounds cheap, remember that the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, starting the flood of 9,000 bank failures that launched the country into the Great Depression. As savings were wiped out, the Dust Bowl took shape in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, and crop prices throughout the US collapsed. Cheap wind energy for many farmers during this time was something of a luxury, and it certainly wasn’t thought about in terms of it being renewable energy.

Caught in the Wires

With so much of rural America without electricity, legislators believed that bringing electricity to the country would increase productivity and rebuild the economies of their states. In May, 1936, President Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act (REA). The REA had a negative effect on the burgeoning wind energy industry by shrinking sales and closing wind businesses, since REA power lines could bring in as much cheap electricity as the customer wanted to use. Not only was the farm’s wind generator limited by the amount it could store in batteries and whether or not the wind was blowing, these new power lines eliminated the maintenance and repair costs of the wind turbine. And with the advent of World War II, wind generator companies had to re-tool for the war effort and eventually left the business altogether.

The Fledgeling Phoenix

Fast forward now to the mid-1970s. In the wake of the energy shocks created by the Arab Oil Embargo (not to mention increasing environmental awareness), there was more technical, industrial, and commercial interest in developing renewable energy technology. Drawing on their experience in the design and building of the Wind Furnace 1 (WF1) wind turbine for the University of Massachusetts wind energy program, a group of graduates founded US Windpower and installed the world’s first wind farm in 1980. Located on a shoulder of Crotched Mountain, New Hampshire, the wind farm utilized twenty 30 Kilowatt (KW) rated wind turbines to build a generation capacity of 600KW. Like WF1 before, these wind turbines capitalized on the ability to adjust the pitch of the turbine propeller blades.

Following World War II, aircraft were equipped with adjustable pitch propellers in order to get the most efficient thrust from the propeller. With a similar technology adapted to wind turbine propellers, their pitch can adjusted so that they turn their generator at the most efficient speed in any given wind speed. If the wind is too fast, the blades can be turned flat or “feathered” to shut down the propeller. Though a mere fledgeling representation of what wind energy would become decades later, this innovation was enough to ignite millions of dollars of investment in wind farm sites in California. By 1985, 12,553 wind generators had been built in the state, accounting for 911MW (96 percent) of total US wind capacity, and all of it was going to electric utilities through the state’s electric grid.

Fifty years after the REA had all but snuffed it out, the wind energy industry had begun to rise from the the ashes as a potentially viable renewable energy source.

Next Week: Understanding the US Wind Energy Industry (Part 2 – The Present)

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