People have been using wind energy for thousands of years

Traditional Dutch windmill
Traditional dutch-type windmill.

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

People began using wind energy to propel boats along the Nile River as early as 5,000 BC. By 200 BC, simple wind-powered water pumps were used in China, and windmills with woven-reed blades were grinding grain in Persia and the Middle East.

New ways of using wind energy eventually spread around the world. By the 11th century, people in the Middle East were using windpumps and windmills extensively for food production. Merchants and the crusaders brought wind technology to Europe. The Dutch developed large wind pumps to drain lakes and marshes in the Rhine River Delta. Immigrants from Europe eventually took wind energy technology to the Western Hemisphere.

American colonists used windmills to grind grain, to pump water, and to cut wood at sawmills. Homesteaders and ranchers installed thousands of wind pumps as they settled the western United States. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, small wind-electric generators (turbines) were also widely used.

When power lines were built to transmit electricity to rural areas in the 1930s, the wind pumps and small turbines were used less frequently. However, wind pumps are still in use on some ranches to supply water for livestock. Small wind turbines are becoming common again, and they are mainly used for supplying electricity in remote and rural areas.

Wind energy use expanded in the wake of oil shortages and environmental concerns

Modern wind turbines
Traditional dutch-type windmill.

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

The oil shortages of the 1970s changed the energy environment for the United States and the world. The oil shortages created an interest in developing alternative energy sources like wind energy to generate electricity. The U.S. federal government supported research and development of large wind turbines. In the early 1980s, thousands of wind turbines were installed in California, largely because of federal and state policies that encouraged the use of renewable energy sources.

In the 1990s and 2000s, additional incentives for renewable energy were established in response to a renewed concern for the environment. In the United States, the federal government provided research and development funding to help reduce the cost of wind turbines. The U.S. federal government also offered tax and investment incentives for wind power projects. State governments enacted requirements for electricity generation from renewable sources. Electric power marketers and utilities began to offer green power to their customers. These policies and programs resulted in an increase in the number of wind turbines and the amount of electricity generated using wind energy.

The share of U.S. electricity generation from wind in 1990 was less than 1%. In 2014, the share of U.S. electricity generation from wind was about 4%. Incentives in Europe have resulted in a large expansion of wind energy use. China is investing heavily in wind energy and now has the world's largest wind electricity generation capacity.