This paper will indulge in the history of wind energy in North America. Particularly discussing the politics, Government involvement, arguments made by environmentalists opposed to the spread of wind turbines and the impact of western expansion on the energy sector and civilization. It seems the world has always had great expectations for wind energy, thus we beg the question of whether wind energy has reached it full potential or if it ever will. A short but detailed history sets up a discussion, which will help to identify the plausibility of wind energy, and its potential within North America.
Wind is created by different variations of air pressure and temperature, it is a form of solar energy that is generated when sun-heated air rises and cooler air rushes in to fill the vacuum. Thus, unless the Sun disappears and air no longer rises, wind will always be at our disposable as a renewable and everlasting form of energy. Wind has also been thought of as what gave humans first life, and as we will soon see, wind energy has had a long rich history in which unmasks many different sides of an energy perceived as transparent and elementary.
At the time of some of the earliest human existence, it is thought that the wind was part of ritual and religion. More recently it was the Indians that accredited creation of the first humans beings to the power of the wind. It affected hunting strategies and seafaring while also having the power to destroy crops and native lands. Even the bible speaks of “an awesome wind sweeping over the world” at the time of creation (Righter 5). This wind was thought of as the spirit of God and had many references to vast varieties of religions. Even the Greeks became familiar with the God Aelous, he was the keeper of the wind who could use his power to hurt or help mans progress. These stories compel the idea that many different people from many distant eras had the same conception of winds tremendous power.
Wind used to power sailboats, which would eventually help in migration could be one of the greatest occurrences of humans using the wind to our advantage. This started a trend where the world began to see the emergence of windmills and the development of society between the 12th and 19th centuries. The idea behind the windmill actually came from the concept of watermills, and people began to understand the concept of taking natural resources and converting it to a source of energy. Soon after the watermill had evolved, people stormed the rivers and waterways to construct their own which ended up resulting in an overabundance of watermills, especially around the major cities. People downstream were being hampered by the people building these watermills upstream and so the domino effect took place. This was also at a time where Kings and Lords of the area decided it was in their best interest to take ownership of the waterways. This ownership of the waterways also gave them some control over the peasants, and how they were allowed to access these mills. Thus the creation of the windmill was highly praised upon as it created an alternative to the watermill clogged rivers as the only form of what we know as today – renewable energy.
The wind could not be owned and could not be controlled by any level of power, which ultimately attracted more people in supporting the development of the windmill. Construction also began during a time where people were rallying against the Kings monopolies and privileges, it was a time where people could produce their own power without being stopped by the Kings and Lords – it “established a condition of freedom that opened an opportunity for the growth of cities, and established a further breach of the Lords energy monopolies” (Kaldellis 13). Below is an example of the first constructed windmill in A.D 1137 by William of Almoner, England.
By the 1300’s windmills would be found across Europe in such places as Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and the Italian states. Continuing with the trend of more windmills came new technologies that enhanced the efficiency of windmills. The tower mill was thus established, and its new innovation resulted in towns investing in 8 hundred to sometimes one thousand tower mills to serve its industrial activities. They helped pump water, ground corn, wheat and reduced pepper, cocoa, dyes, chalk and other spices. Lumber companies used them to power their sawmills and paper companies used them to reduce wood pulp to paper. It was projected that these machines were able to supply 25 percent of Europe’s industrial energy between the 1300’s up to the introduction of the steam engine in the 1800’s. This technology then tried to make its way to America where it encountered many problems, such as the demand for labor. Since the windmill was a permanent structure it needed constant care and attention, this was labor that was not available to America.
It was also at this time that the windmill was deemed unsuitable for the environmental conditions in America. Although this would later change as the desire for more power started to pop up in Western America and became more then just a machine, “The American windmill is more than a machine – it is a symbol, evoking different memories in each of us. What the buffalo meant to the Indian, what the horse meant to the Spaniard – that is what the windmill meant to the American Settler. Survival – development – staying power.” (Sahin 520). This resurrected a movement that saw nearly 6 million windmills operating in the West between 1880 and 1930. It was indeed a time of evolvement and technology that took America by storm.
One of the most important historical events for the wind industry took place in the 1800’s when windmills were finally able to generate electricity. This was around the same time where items that needed electricity was taking off and thus a great time for wind energy to keep up with the evolving technology of society. Although this was also at time where the debate between what resources should be used to satisfy societies needs. The options available at this time were wood, coal, and petroleum, so the emergence of electric producing windmills would also too join the realms of possibility.
The readiness and supply of coal and petroleum made them the best option at this time, and in fault this pushed wind energy into the background. In what some called the age of energy, the 19th century was seen consuming mass amounts of energy and since windmills could not produce the capabilities of that of oil and gas it became almost a non-factor within the energy sector. It became more apparent to the people that wind energy was impractical and could never serve as a primary resource. At this point wind energy enthusiast could only sit back and dream of what could be, where in reality, wind energy was a far cry from being a realistic alternative. During this time small-scale entrepreneurs where attempting to revive the industry by creating smaller wind energy producing units with minor improvements.
Although it ending up taking the war to revive the struggling industry, “War is one of those profound paradoxes. It is destructive to human values, to life, to cultures, to natural resources” (Righter 73). The war was a time of technological and scientific advancements, especially within aeronautics and the propeller. This opened a new direction for the design of windmills and its technology as scientific ratios could now be used to test for the best optimal design. Oliver Fritchle who built some of the first electric cars in the early 1900’s joined wind energy sector when gas driven vehicles drove him out of business. He began selling the new and improved windmills, aimed more so at the rural area as these places lacked a sufficient supply of electricity, or no electricity at time. His first 32-volt systems sold for $1,000 and the 110-volt systems selling for $1200. He was quite successful as people were happy with the trade-off of purchasing the unit and its ability to supply electricity to small lighting and appliances. Unfortunately he unknowingly proceeded in some unlawful investments, which ended his run as the front-runner of the industry.
Jacobs Wind Electric Company and the Wincharger Corporation were the next evolvers of the industry and sold hundreds of thousands of units during the mid 1900’s. World War 1 also brought expansion within the utility industry as an electric grid within cities were built and would be extensively used for newly sought after appliances etc. It was said the rural areas had three choices when it came to electricity, first they could remain un-electrified, secondly they could be given power lines, and thirdly they could pay to have there own energy generating plant. The latter would include wind power, but came with a steep price tag, so too did the power lines which would also result in giving up control to the power companies. A study done in 1940 found that a gas machine that could produce 1000 watts of energy would cost $16.64 a month, where as a 1000 watt wind driven plant would cost $7.39 a month. Unfortunately at this time the farmers had no great desire for electric service, in direct result of the hard times from the depression. It was also noted that the gas driven 1000 watts was able to out produce the 1000 watts of wind power.
Ten years later in the 1950’s the wind industry was hit once again with the introduction of Government subsidies for centralized electric systems, which did not include wind power. Around this time people also began to see nuclear as the energy of the future, during this period the Government invested 27 billion dollars into the development of nuclear energy. So once again the wind industry was at stand still, and it seemed that every time the industry had a chance for a break through another hurdle would present itself.
It took an energy crisis and the beginning of a serious environmental rally to breath new life and set the wind industry back on track. After World War 2 energy consumption doubled and the need for more resources became immanent, unfortunately the United States reverted to focusing its efforts on harsh extraction and hoping the nuclear industry would pull through. Luckily, Germany had other ideas and focused their attention to experimenting with wind energy, seeing rather successful results with their new wind turbines. These turbines, given the name Gedsers, proved to be efficient and reliable. Gedsers also seemed more appropriate once the nuclear industry hit its max, where Americans saw prices go skyhigh, antinuclear protests taking place, financial problems, and the negative effects of nuclear waste becoming more clearly understood. At this point other parts of the world were slowly moving forward with the development of renewable energy and the United States could only wish that they to were heading in the right direction. Instead they had wasted billions of dollars into an industry that eventually became deemed as unsafe and costly.
The problem of pollution eventually made its way to the forefront of the American people, this opened the door for environmentalists to portray the harsh reality of the direction in which the nation was heading. Government reacted by introducing the clean air act in 1970 – this enacted that utility companies would need to reduce carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and polluting smoke. Wind energy slowly came back into the picture and was resurrected…sort of. The industry had to revert back to its very beginnings to understand what they were doing wrong and how to make a sustainable industry. So with that, it took many years, along with minuscule Government investment, compared to the nuclear phase, to eventually see the wind industry get a real chance – although the largest hurdle was still found in producing a product that would properly merit mass construction. So the American Government brought in the leaders in the wind industry from Europe to help prosper the industry. 1987 marked a year where “90 percent of new installations in California wind farms were Danish built” (Kaldellis 215). These turbines proved to be reliable, and if one has ever been to California they will most likely see a representation of what was called the ‘ Danish Forest’. California began to be the hub of green energy within the United States, and in 1990 thousands of wind turbines in California represented 90 percent of the wind energy produced in the United States (Righter 190).
All of sudden this industry proved profitable, and was also seen as a good investment as it revolved around environmental sustainability. Tax credits started being issued in 1981 for wind energy use and the largest boom of the industry took place. But with anything comes a bust, fast-forwarding to 1986 the tax incentives and Government tax credits expired and oil prices began to decrease. Thus the wind industry began to spiral downwards with many companies declaring bankruptcy. “Close on the heels of bankruptcies and cancellations came court cases. Cities sued federal agencies, investors sued wind farms companies, wind farm companies sued manufacturers, and manufacturers sued insurance companies”(CQ Researcher 219). This resulted in the wind industry having to result back to smaller wind farms, another specialty of the Danish – and so came the ‘Danish Dominance era’. The Danish took control of outsmarting the market and saving money by only running the equipment using peak hours – which would be in the late afternoon. They focused their efforts in the Palm Springs Coachella valley, an area that has some of the best wind generating characteristics in the United States. In doing this they were able to avoid many costs, paving a road for a new way of wind farming.
Coming into the early 1990’s the wind industry was back on track and “Americans realized the promise of significant energy production from a benign, non polluting, renewable power source that did not create global warming” (Richter 263). It was seen to many people that California chose wind energy, not the other way around. As this paper will later discuss, the capacity of wind power depended on having a proper electrical grid that could transfer the power generated to homes and businesses across the State. This short but detailed history of the wind industry sets the stage for a more in depth look at the future of wind energy. Some questions the remainder of this paper will try to answer include: what arguments are environmentalists constructing? Are they valid? Is wind energy a realistic venture, and if so what are the implications it will have on society and the energy sector? Lastly, one must wonder if the industry is as vulnerable as it was in the past 100 years because the rise and fall in this industry seems to always have its susceptibilities.
The progression of wind energy has had its chance to learn from past mistakes, and certainly one has seen improvements made within the industry. Other places in world, when external and internal costs are included, have calculated that wind power is being competitive with fossil and nuclear energy. This demonstrates that the industry, if wind blows, can be economically capable of producing efficient renewable energy. As we have seen through the history of wind energy, North America has always been a step behind other nations, which continues to damper its chances of taking advantage of renewable sources. Being a step behind has opened doors for environmentalists to find more reasons that the wind industry has its detrimental faults. Noise emission, the visual impact on landscape, moving shadows, erosion, the impact on birds and personnel safety are a few of the arguments. Noise emission regulations have made it impossible to construct windmills in inhabited areas; in most parts of Europe the normal distance from house to windmill is 200 meters. Thus, as the world continues to grow it will become more seemingly important to construct windmills before the rest of the world gets there.
As turbines grow in dimensions, so to does the visual impact and people’s opinion on what should be allowable. The most effective argument comes from environmentalists and the problem of bird mortality. It has been sited that wind turbines in the United States killed an estimated 440,000 birds in 2009, the greatest total of deaths by a structure or reason (Sovacool 2009). This is because the height and placement of these turbines directly coincides with the flight path and migration areas of particular birds. Thus a valid point is present, as resources state that wind turbines are at fault for the largest amount of avian bird mortality. On the other side we also have environmental advantages of using wind power, which include; no direct atmospheric emissions, no liabilities after decommissioning, promotes better energy balance and uses a limited amount of land. Compared to other power sources, wind turbines take up a minimal amount of space, and omit no emissions. The questions resulting from these advantages and disadvantages seem to roll into one big question; what’s more important?
Seen through the early 1900’s to the late 1900’s, and even evident in today’s society is the perception verses performance of the wind industry. The industry has seemed to carry with it a perception of being costly and unreliable, even though properly installed wind farms have proven to be sustainable and efficient. So why is that wind farms in Canada are having such a hard time pushing the industry forward? Talking with a director of Alberta Wind Energy brought forth several problems, and large ones at that, which he believes are currently holding the industry back.
The first being the detrimental impact that environmentalists are having on the industry, these environmentalist groups have evolved into extremely organized groups. This can be in result from large environmental disasters such as the Santa Barbara oil spill and more recently the BP oil spill on the gulf coast. In Alberta, environmentalists are delaying the building of transmission lines and equipment by raising concerns about the bird, bat, migration paths and bird nesting sites. The Native land in Alberta has also brought concerns by the Indians about ancient burial grounds, and agreements to build electrical transmission lines through their territory has proved difficult. These are problems that cannot be easily resolved; these are problems that require understanding…hard in a world full of greed and money. One must also consider the environmental issues resulting from oil spills, which is truly more devastating then the bird issue at hand within the wind industry.
In terms of being economically viable, the industry would need to see natural gas prices increase. Because of the low prices of natural gas, the owners of natural gas powered electrical generators are running their plants at full capacity, which increases the supply of electricity which brings electrical prices down. Since there is little profit at lower prices, the wind energy industry is having a hard time attracting the capital to build the wind farms. Also the bulk of wind industry infrastructure is funded by debt and in order for the industry to get debt funding there needs to be a long term fixed price of electricity purchase contract in place so the debt holder is confident that he can get paid back. With the low electrical prices most companies are having a hard time getting long term sales contracts at a high enough price to get a return on their investment. So currently the low natural gas price is really hurting companies in Alberta and across Canada. Thus, the modern day wind industry is up against some real economic issues that seem to have a firm grasp on the success and failure of the industry.
So what is Canada doing to address these issues? One of the largest pushes for the industry comes from CanWEA (Canadian Wind Energy Association) and their WINDVISION 2025 campaign. Their belief is that wind energy can provide 20 percent of Canada’s electricity demand by 2025. In order to do this they are hoping to influence Government and municipalities by focusing their campaign on five key elements; enhancing wind energy procurement processes, providing incentives to manufactures of wind power equipment, planning and building wind-friendly transmission infrastructure, streamlining permitting and approval processes for wind energy projects and lastly providing fair value for the environmental attributes of wind energy. It is the belief that these 5 points are key vocal points that need to be pushed in order for the industry to be a factor within the energy sector. Industry Canada notes that wind energy is the fastest growing renewable energy source with an annual growth rate of 60% since 1998.
This depicts an obvious opportunity for the Government of Canada and its renewable energy industry. Industry Canada identifies its role with the wind industry as “Industry Canada supports the development of wind energy by, conducting research to assess the economic opportunities for Canada; analyzing the domestic manufacturing capacity to support the industry; and encouraging investment opportunities. In addition, Industry Canada works in collaboration with federal and provincial government departments, industry organizations, and other wind energy stakeholders on initiatives to identify opportunities and a strategic path for increased Canadian participation in global wind supply and value chains, developing technology solutions for the growing wind energy sector, and investigating new opportunities for Canadian firms in small wind and off-grid communities” (Industry Canada). The Government has also implemented such initiatives as the Wind Technology Roadmap – an initiative that aims at helping the industries supply chain, R&D, marketing and investment decisions.
An Eco-Energy initiative for renewable power that is designed to increase the supply of clean energy from renewable sources to power 1 million homes. The Clean Energy Fund Program will provide 850 million dollars over 5 years to renewable and clean energy system demonstrations, along with another 150 million for clean energy research and development. Lastly the Government continues to support the Canadian leaders in clean energy technologies with investments to CanmetENERGY. This is what the Government is currently doing for promoting renewable sources such as wind energy, although nothing near the investments poured into past industries as natural gas, these investments will improve and grow the wind industry.
As one can see it is not the internal issues, nor competing wind farms or technology that are to be blamed for the current stall of the industry, but it is the impact of environmentalists and economic factors such as natural gas prices that have the industry in limbo. Unfortunately the industry is heavily reliant on external factors that can quickly sway the success and failure of wind power. Much like the past history has shown, wind energy continues to have its struggles, but at the same time continues to have great potential. It seems evident that natural gas prices will eventually rise, opening a door for such an industry as wind. One must closely watch Government polices and economic factors as this too can change the course of the industry.
It is the hope of the wind industry that people will become more conscience of what energy sources they are using, not just to help the industry take off, but also to help limit the effects that non renewable sources are having on our planet. All of the necessary variables that have to line up in order for the wind industry to come to fruition make it a risky venture. As the paper demonstrated, the history of wind has proved vulnerable and turbulent to external forces; this is just as true today as it was in the past. All of these factors make it hard to predict the future of the wind industry, one might want to closely follow the natural gas industry but until then, only time will tell if the wind industry will blow success.
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