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500–900 AD
  • The first windmills were developed in Persia for pumping water and grinding grain.


About 1300
  • The first horizontal-axis windmills (like a pinwheel) appeared in Western Europe.

  • Daniel Halladay and John Burnham worked to build and sell the Halladay Windmill, designed for the American West. It had an open tower design and thin wooden blades. They also started the U.S. Wind Engine Company.
Late 1880s
  • Thomas O. Perry conducted over 5,000 wind experiments trying to build a better windmill. He invented the mathematical windmill, which used gears to reduce the rotational speed of the blades. This design had greater lifting power and smoother pumping action, and the windmill could operate in lighter winds. Perry also started the Aermotor Company with LaVerne Noyes.
  • The development of steel blades made windmills more efficient. Six million windmills sprang up across America as settlers moved west. Homesteaders purchased windmills from catalogs or traveling salesmen or, otherwise, built their own. Mills were used to pump water, shell corn, saw wood, and mill grain.

  • Charles F. Brush used the first large windmill to generate electricity in Cleveland, Ohio. Windmills that produce electricity started to be called wind turbines. In later years, General Electric acquired Brush's company, Brush Electric Co.
  • In Chicago, Illinois, the World's Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World's Fair) highlighted 15 windmill companies that showcased their goods.
 Early 1900s
  • Windmills in California pumped saltwater to evaporate ponds. This provided gold miners with salt.
  • For several months during World War II, the Smith-Putnam wind turbine supplied power to the local community at "Grandpa's Knob," a hilltop near Rutland, Vermont. Its blades were 53 meters (175 feet) in diameter.


  • The Smith-Putnam wind turbine broke down, and the machine was shut down.


  •  The Smith-Putnam machine was restarted, but small cracks in the blade caused one blade to break; the turbine was shut down forever.


  • Most windmill companies in the United States went out of business.




  • With funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) led an effort to increase wind power technology at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland , Ohio. NASA developed 13 experimental wind turbines with four major designs:
  1. the MOD-0A (200 kilowatts)
  2. the MOD-1 (2 megawatts, the first turbine in 1979 over 1 megawatt)
  3. the MOD-2 (2.5 megawatts)
  4. the MOD-5B (3.2 megawatt).



  • Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) of 1978 to encourage the use of renewable energy and cogeneration facilities (plants that have another purpose besides producing electricity). PURPA requires utility companies to buy extra electricity from renewable and cogeneration facilities that meet certain qualifications, called qualifying facilities (QFs). The amount that a utility pays a QF must be equal to the cost that it would have taken the utility to produce the same amount of electricity, called the avoided cost.


  • The first wind turbine rated over 1 megawatt (MOD-1),
    began operating; MOD-1 had a 2-megawatt capacity rating.

  • The cost of electricity from wind generation was about 40 cents per kilowatt hour.



  • The Crude Oil Windfall Profits Tax Act of 1980 further increased tax credits for businesses that used renewable energy. The Federal tax credit for wind energy reached 25%, rewarding those businesses choosing to use renewable energy.
  • Because of a need for more electricity, California began using a contract system that allowed certain renewable and cogeneration facilities (or in other words, QFs) to lock into rates that would make electricity generated from renewable technologies, like wind farms and geothermal plants, more cost competitive. Prices were based on the costs saved by not building planned coal plants.


  • Many wind turbines were installed in California in the early 1980s to help meet growing electricity needs and to take advantage of government incentives. By 1985, California wind capacity exceeded 1,000 megawatts, enough power to supply 250,000 homes. These wind turbines were very inefficient.

  • The MOD-5B was the largest wind turbine operating in the world — with a rotor diameter of nearly 100 meters (330 feet) and a rated power of 3.2 megawatts.


  • Many of the hastily installed turbines of the early 1980s were removed and later replaced with more reliable models.


  • Throughout the 1980s, DOE funding for wind power research and development declined, reaching its low point in 1989.


  • More than 2,200 megawatts of wind energy capacity was installed in California — more than half of the world's capacity at the time.


  • The Energy Policy Act of 1992 called for increased energy efficiency and renewable energy use and authorized a production tax credit of 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour for wind-generated electricity. It also reformed the Public Utility Holding Company Act to help make smaller utility companies more able to compete with larger ones.


  • U.S. Windpower developed one of the first commercially available variable-speed wind turbines, the 33M-VS. The development was completed over five years, with the final prototype tests completed in 1992. The $20-million project was funded mostly by U.S. Windpower, but also involved Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Pacific Gas & Electric, and Niagara Mohawk Power Company.


  • In a ruling against the California Public Utility Commission, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) refused to allow utilities to pay qualifying renewable facilities (QFs) rates that were higher than the utilities' avoided cost, the amount that it would cost the utility to produce the same amount of electricity.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Wind Energy Program lowered technology costs. DOE�s advanced turbine program led to new turbines with energy costs of 5 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity generated.



  • Ten-year Standard Offer contracts written during the mid-1980s (at rates of 6 cents per kilowatt hour and higher) began to expire. The new contract rates reflected a much lower avoided cost of about 3 cents per kilowatt hour and created financial hardships for most qualifying renewable and cogeneration facilities (QFs).
  • Kenetech, the producer of most of the U.S.-made wind generators, faced financial difficulties; it sold off most of its assets and stopped making wind generators.


  • Wind generated electricity reached the 2,000 megawatt mark.


  • Installed capacity of wind-powered, electricity-generating equipment exceeded 2,500 megawatts. Contracts for new wind farms continued to be signed.
  • The cost of electricity from wind generation was from 4 to 6 cents per kilowatt hour.


  • Installed capacity of wind-powered, electricity-generating equipment was 4,685 megawatts as of January 21.


  • The cost of electricity from wind generation was 3 to 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour.


  • The Energy Policy Act of 2005 strengthened incentives for wind and other renewable energy sources.


  •  DOE’s budget for wind subsidies was about $500 million — about 10 times as much as the 1978 level.


  • Wind power provided 5 percent of the renewable energy used in the United States.
  • U.S. wind power produced enough electricity, on average, to power the equivalent of over 2.5 million homes.
  • Installed capacity of wind-powered, electricity-generating equipment was 13,885 megawatts as of September 30 — more than four times the capacity in 2000.



Last Revised: September 2008
Sources: Energy Information Administration, Energy in Brief: How much renewable energy do we use? August 2008
Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, Wind & Hydropower Technologies Program, March 2008
American Wind Association, Wind Energy Projects Throughout the United States, March 2008