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History of Wind Power

September 28, 2020
Paul Gipe

Who Built the World's First Wind Farm?


Times change. People die. The rest forget. The past is lost and with it the knowledge we gained at so much cost.

I was reminded of this today by two messages. One was a newsletter from a small Danish museum that celebrates the life of Denmark's great inventor Poul la Cour. The newsletter announced the death of Anne-Marie Howe, one of the pioneers in the great wind revival of the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was there at the birth of modern wind energy.

The second message was from an Australian company announcing an infographic on the history of renewable energy with an accompanying description. Now this is well and good. We need more people explaining renewable energy to the world. And it's good that the Aussies are taking it on. Kudos to them.

Unfortunately, I've been at this a long time. I've tried my hand at explaining wind energy to the masses so I know it's easy to get it wrong--or at least not quite right. Been there, done that.

I looked over the graphic and it looked fine. Then an item caught my eye. The infographic said the "world's first wind farm opens in New Hampshire" in 1980. Well, sort of. Historians might take a different view.

Depends on how you define a wind farm.

The Dutch often "ganged" together several traditional windmills along a canal to drain their famous polders. Historically, this is how the wind was used to pump large volumes of water. On page 313 of Wind Energy for the Rest of Us I wrote that "At Kinderdijk, for example, 19 Dutch windmills were used in tandem to drain a polder south of Rotterdam. Kinderdijk—most likely the world’s oldest wind farm—operated until 1950." Thus, I make the case that it was the Dutch who built the first wind farm and they probably did it in the 17th century.

Then again, we can move the time line to the modern era. During the post WWII years, famous wind turbine engineer Ulrich Hütter designed a sleek three-bladed modern wind turbine for the Allgaier company in southern Germany. The 11-meter diameter downwind turbine drove a 10 kW generator designed for off-grid use. According to German photog­rapher Jan Oelker in his Windgesichter (The Face of Wind Energy), Allgaier installed one group of eight turbines in the early 1950s for draining a polder in the lowlands of northern Germany. The turbines, which could lay claim to the title of first modern wind farm, operated for a decade.

So if it was electricity generating wind turbines you're after, Germany's Allgaier built the first wind farm in the 1950s. (As an aside, there were a few examples of Hütter's Allgaier turbine still standing in Germany during the late 1990s.)

 

Now if it was a group of electricity generating wind turbines connected to the grid, then yes US Windpower did build the first wind farm in the United States when it installed 30 prototype 30-kW downwind turbines on Crotched Moun­tain, New Hampshire, in 1980. Though the turbines were not successful, the project estab­lished the investment vehicle for rapid growth in the hothouse atmosphere created by California’s lucrative market.

USW's turbines only operated a few years before they were removed. They operated for much less time than either the long-lived Dutch turbines in the polder at Kinderdijk or Hütter's Allgaier turbines in a polder in Northern Germany in the 1950s.

Nevertheless, the Crotched Mountain turbines were the first wind farm of the modern era. Though there were small clusters of turbines operating in Denmark and Germany at the time, there was no comparable group of turbines that I am aware of.

I remember seeing two Wind-Matic or Riisager turbines at a soccer field in 1980 and there was a group of turbines at the Test Station for Small Windmills at Risø, but no wind farm as such.

If my memory serves me correctly, the wind farm at Velling Mærsk-Tændpibe wasn't built until the mid 1980s using V15s and V17s from the nearby Vestas factory.

Should they change the infographic? No. It's close enough to be relatively accurate. Mine's a quibble for sure. Only hard corps wind geeks would care.

I've had a similar issue with American claims that we were the first to connect a wind turbine to the grid. Not so. See Denmark's Agricco: History’s First Interconnected Wind Turbine. This is a much more clear-cut case than who built the first wind farm.


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