How Wind Turbines Have Evolved: From the First to the Biggest

Windmills at Saint Nazaire

In this article we follow the journey of using wind for power. From ancient times when windmills were used to grind flour, through to modern day turbines standing hundreds of metres tall and providing electricity to thousands of homes. How have we got here? Read on.

The windmills of Neshtifan - Source: https://surfiran.com/

The Early Years

Humans have been harnessing the power of the wind for over two thousand years.

In the first century AD, Heron of Alexandria - mathematician, inventor and engineer - created something he called the windwheel. He used this windwheel to power a pipe organ, making "flute-like" noises.

Evidence of wind power then vanishes until the 7th or 8th century AD, when we find windmills being used to grind flour and pump water in Iran.

The next major development in our story was the discovery of electricity in the 1700s, even though it took at least another 100 years before the right mind came along.

Enter James Blyth, the world's first wind power engineer.

Blyth built the first wind turbine in Scotland in July 1887. His 10 m high, cloth-sailed wind turbine was installed in the garden of his holiday cottage at Marykirk in Kincardineshire and was used to power the lighting in the cottage, making it the first house in the world to have its electricity supplied by wind power.

Blyth offered the surplus electricity to the people of Marykirk for lighting the main street, however, they turned down the offer as they thought electricity was "the work of the devil."

He later built a wind turbine to supply emergency power to the local Asylum in Montrose, but at the time the technology was not considered to be economically viable. [Source]

Hot on Blyth's heels, American Charles Brush was building his first electricity-generating wind turbine in 1888 in Cleveland, Ohio. The turbine's diameter was 17 meters (50 feet), it had 144 rotor blades made of cedar wood, and it generated about 12 kilowatts (kW) of power. [Source]

We next meet a Danish man called Poul la Cour.

Inventor, scientist, meteorologist AND a teacher, la Cour was a major force in the development of what we now recognise as modern wind turbines. It was la Cour who realised that turbines with fewer blades are more efficient, and also that regulators could be used to provide a steady supply of energy.

The 20th Century on

Throughout the 20th century, individuals and companies around the world developed the technology to a utility-scale level.

The pace of development has been accelerating since the 1970s, thanks to a combination of material science, engineering and government incentives. The first windfarms were built, providing electricity to thousands of homes.

In the 1980s the Danes installed the first offshore wind turbines, starting the industry which now dominates the renewable energy world.

Turbines themselves have grown in size and efficiency, as you will see in the diagrams below.

You can read a very detailed timeline of events here: [Timeline}

 

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The growth of wind turbines with landmarks and buildings for comparison

Key Questions

How much does a wind turbine cost?

This depends on a few things, but mainly if the turbine will be onshore or offshore.

 

With the added challenges and costs of the logistics, offshore turbines cost significantly more than onshore.

 

Costs are worked out on a ratio, measuring the amount of capital expenditure (CAPEX) to generate 1 megawatt (MW).

 

The average value of the actual capex costs reported for onshore wind farms completed in 2016-19 was £1.61 million per MW; for offshore wind it was £4.49 million per MW (including transmission) or £3.99 million if the very expensive Hywind project is excluded. [Source]

 

One way to look at all the costs involved in a comparative way is called levelised cost of energy (LCOE) which you can read about here: [Source]

 

 

How big are wind turbines?

 

You can see in the graphic above how much they've grown over the years, and what they look like compared to some well-known landmarks and buildings.

 

The latest giants are GE's Haliade X-13, which has 220 metre rotors (that's 107 metres per blade!) and stands over 250 metres tall.

 

With the world’s largest swept area exceeding 43,000 m2, the new Vestas V236-15.0 MW "delivers industry-leading performance and moves the boundaries of wind energy." [Source]

 

 

What is the future for Offshore Wind?

 

With tens of billions of dollars already committed to developing offshore wind projects around the world, its future as a major electricity provider is assured.

 

There are also two areas which can be further developed to help establish the industry even further:

 

Wind to Hydrogen

 

A rapidly developing technology is using wind turbines to power electrolysers which then create Hydrogen, known as Green Hydrogen when made using renewable energy.

 

Read More

 

Floating offshore

 

The next frontier for wind power is into deeper water, where fixed platforms and foundations aren't possible. Using the vast knowledge experience of the oil & gas industry, solutions are being developed to install floating wind turbines.

 

Read More

 

Hopefully you've enjoyed this brief journey through the history of an industry which has helped humanity for thousands of years.

 

Stay tuned for more! 

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Oliver Hague
Regional Marketer for Europe & Africa