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Wind Energy Milestones

Paul Kando

Wind power is poised to overtake hydroelectric power as America’s number one renewable energy source. It already accounts for nearly 5% of U.S. electric power generation and reduces annual CO2 emissions by 132 million metric tons, and supports nearly 90,000 U.S. jobs.

Stone Windmill

Still some people treat wind energy as some newfangled menace threatening our landscape, even though it has been part of that landscape for longer than any other energy source, save muscle power. It propelled boats along the Nile River in 5,000 BCE Persians pumped water and ground grains with it in 900 BCE From there windmills spread across the Middle East, reaching Europe around 1,000 CE when the Dutch began using them to drain marshes in the Rhine River delta.

Wind power arrived in America around 1850. By 1890 it was widely used by North American farmers and ranchers to pump water and generate electricity. After steel blades were invented, increasing efficiency, more than 6 million windmills were erected throughout the countryside. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair showcased 15 windmill companies.

In 1941 the largest wind turbine of its day was installed on Vermont’s “Grandpa’s Knob”. During World War II it fed 1.25 megawatts (MW) of electric power into the local utility network. Then oil became king, ruling unchallenged until the 1970s’ skyrocketing oil prices rekindled interest in wind turbines again. In 1978 Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), requiring power companies to buy a set amount of renewably generated electricity. By 1980 there were utility-scale wind farms in California and in 1981 NASA introduced improved methods of predicting turbine performance.

The 1992 Energy Policy Act authorized a 1.5 ¢/kWh production tax credit for wind-generated electricity. By 2000 wind power was cost competitive with fossil fuels in electric power generation and by 2015 the U.S. had 74 gigawatts (GW) of installed wind capacity. Mid-century forecasts call for 35% of US energy needs to be met by wind power.

Wind turbines are getting taller, more affordable, and more efficient. You can’t miss their graceful beauty over most of Europe. In the US an additional 700,000 square miles of land may eventually be occupied by wind farms — over twice the size of Texas.

Offshore winds are stronger and steadier than wind over land. Maine has a 149 GW offshore wind resource within 50 nautical miles from shore. 55 million people live between New York and Maine — a huge potential power market for our state. Funded in part under the 2011 National Offshore Wind strategy, the University of Maine was first in the world to install a prototype concrete-composite floating platform wind turbine in the Gulf of Maine. By 2030, 5 GW of offshore wind will be harvested, half of it for sale to neighboring states.

Stanford University’s Solutions Project shows how Maine can convert from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy, using 70% wind power, 22% solar PV, with hydro, wave and tidal turbines making up the rest. We have excellent renewable energy resources. Why delay making the most of them?