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Wind Power: What It Is And How It Works

Nov 25th, 2021

Wind power is becoming a more and more popular source of renewable energy, especially as we continue to develop green technology. In fact, AMLI powers the common areas at its Dallas apartments and luxury Houston apartments with clean energy generated by wind turbines. The fascinating thing about wind power, though, is that humanity has been using wind for power for millennia! 

Here’s a brief history on wind power, as well as some info on how we use wind to make electricity today.

Early wind-powered inventions

Humans have been harnessing the power of the wind for millennia — the most obvious invention being sail-powered boats! There’s evidence dating wind power back nearly 5,500 years to times of antiquity, back when wind was used to ventilate the earliest of homesteads and pieces of cloth were tied to rudimentary sailboats for transportation. 

By the 17th century (as in, the 17th century B.C.E.!), Babylonian emperor Hammurabi had created plans for a wind-powered irrigation system, and by the 7th century there was evidence of wind-powered wheels throughout India, Tibet and China. 

The early Middle Ages saw the appearance of windmills and wind pumps pop up in what is now Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan circa the 9th century B.C.E. These wind-powered machines were used to grind grain and move water, and in Sicily similar wind pumps were used to pump sea water for salt-making. In Egypt, farmers used windmills in the production of sugarcane, and the ancient city of Baghdad once famously featured statues that rotated in the wind. 

The upright windmills as we know them today only popped up in Europe around the 12th century A.D., though there’s no evidence that there was any influence from the Middle East, where vertical-axis windmills had been commonplace for nearly a millennia already. These Late-Middle-Ages-era windmills were a sign of nobility and wealth, as water-powered wheels were vulnerable to freezing during winter, whereas wind-powered ones were not.

By the 14th century, Dutch windmills had popped up around the Rhine River delta in order to drain it for construction, and in Greece windmills were used to grain flour. Many of those windmills can still be seen on Mykonos today!

Wind and electricity

The very first recorded instance of wind being used to generate electricity was in Scotland in 1887. Mechanical engineering professor James Blyth of Strathclyde University (then Anderson’s College) powered his home with a makeshift wind turbine, creating the world’s first structure powered entirely by electricity generated by wind energy. Blyth patented his horizontal-axis wind turbine design and was highly recognized and praised for his contributions to the field. However, at that point in time, wind power was considered uneconomical (compared to the relative affordability of oil), and the field of study remained largely ignored in the United Kingdom for the next half-century. Some residents of his hometown even rejected Blyth’s wind-generated energy as they believed that electricity was “the work of the devil.” How times have changed!

At around the same time in the United States, an Ohio-based engineer was also exploring the possibilities of wind-generated electricity. Inventor Charles F. Brush created a wind turbine to power his home and laboratory in 1888, although the machine became redundant after electricity became publicly available in 1900. 

Danish scientist Poul la Cour was the first to design and create a wind turbine that generated electricity and stored it as hydrogen for future use, essentially creating what we today call hydrogen batteries. La Cour invented his turbine in 1891, and by 1908 there were nearly 72 electricity-generating windmills and wind pumps dotted throughout Denmark.

For most of the 20th century, electricity-generating wind turbines were mainly used to power rural farms that had little access to publicly distributed electricity, especially in the Midwestern United States. The late 1970s saw the pioneering of commercial wind turbines used for generating electricity, but the turbines’ popularity fluctuated with oil prices and the need for a more economical energy source.

As the 20th century came to a close, scientists and global leaders began to take greater notice of climate change, energy security and the ultimately unrenewable supply of fossil fuels. This sparked a massive interest in renewable energy sources like solar, wind and water power, and commercial wind turbines began popping up again all over the world.

Today, around 5.3% of the world’s electricity is generated by wind power, with some of the largest wind farms located in China, India and the United States. In Europe, around 14% of the electricity used in 2018 was generated from wind-energy, and in Denmark over 41% of the country’s electricity demand was covered by its onshore and offshore wind farms! 

All that to say that wind power has come a long way since its early days of sailboats and water pumps. The fairly simple mechanisms that transform wind to power have gone from merely grinding grains to powering whole communities with electricity! 

How does wind power work?

So we know that wind energy is a growing source of renewable power, but how exactly does it work? How do we turn a gentle breeze into megawatts of electricity?

Wind farms

Wind, of course, is a natural phenomenon that’s created by the heating and cooling of the Earth’s atmosphere, as well as by the planet’s rotation and geological makeup. While the speed and direction of the wind at any given point on Earth does change on a daily basis, over the course of a year there are distinct patterns and trends that can help scientists identify the best locations for wind farms. Usually, these places are plains, hills, deserts or even in the middle of oceans! The more constant and predictable the annual wind patterns are, the better. 

Wind farms have to be accessible to mechanics and engineers, as well as needing to comply with local noise and height restrictions. The third-biggest wind farm in the world is the Alta Wind Energy Center in California, where around 600 wind turbines work to generate electricity for surrounding residents, but a wind farm can also be as small as one turbine to still be effective. 

Wind turbines

Speaking of turbines, the seemingly complex mechanisms inside those giant spinning structures are fairly simple when we really look at them. After all, humans have been fine-tuning wind power for the past five millennia!

Whether the turbine is an 850-foot floating turbine, a small vertical turbine or an average-sized 460-foot wind farm turbine, the components are all the same and work the same way. There are blades, a rotor, a generator and a brake.

The blades are designed in the same way airplane wings are, with aerodynamic properties that create a pocket of low pressure as wind passes over the blade. The low pressure creates lift, which causes the blade to spin. A pitch system will rotate the turbine and the blades in accordance to wind speeds and direction to ensure the most efficient spin, which will in turn generate the most electricity. The controller will stop the blades if the wind gets too strong or if the turbine needs to be repaired. 

The spinning blades are attached to a rotor, which is housed behind the blades in a nacelle that also contains the controller and generator. The rotor has a large ring of magnets that spins within the generator, creating an electrical current as the magnetic field passes through the generator’s ring of copper coils. 

The generator sends this electrical current to a transformer that converts the voltage into a more transmissible current, which is then sent to a substation that distributes the power safely to local transmission towers. After that, power travels to houses, businesses, farms and wherever else is connected to the power grid!

An average onshore wind turbine can power up to 1,500 homes with electricity for a year, while the larger offshore ones can power up to 3,300 households! Of course, wind energy is not 100% constant, so dips in a wind farm’s energy output are usually supplemented by other renewable sources (such as solar and water) or the traditional power grid.

Check out this video below to see more about how wind power gets from the turbine to your home!

All in all, wind power is a fairly uncomplicated and accessible power source that’s becoming more and more popular each year. For more specific and up-to-date information on wind energy in the United States, you can always visit the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy’s wind technology site!

Easy Breezy!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Pexels

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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