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In recent years, wind power has become one of the most popular sources of renewable energy in the United States. In 2000, wind was estimated to generate less than one percent of the country’s electricity; by 2018, this rate had climbed to nearly seven percent.

Wind power has long been part of the American tradition… the first known U.S. wind engine company was established in the 1850’s.

But how exactly did wind power come to be, and what paved the way for it to become one of the most widely-used clean energy sources in North America today?

Where did wind power in the US originate?

Wind power has long been part of the American tradition, with colonists using windmills to grind grain, pump water, and cut wood at sawmills. The first known U.S. wind engine company was established in the 1850’s when inventor Daniel Halladay began designing and manufacturing windmills via the Halladay Windmill Company in Ellington, Connecticut. In 1857, Halladay and sales associate John Burnham launched the U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company in Batavia, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. The pair began selling the tool to farmers across the American Midwest primarily for the purpose of pumping water and generating electricity.

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The first windmills by Halladay and Burnham were nimble: Their blades would swivel to adjust to the ever-changing speed and direction of the wind, all without the assistance of humans. They quickly grew in popularity across the country, and by the 19th century, there were over one-million of them spread out over the U.S.

What caused wind power to rise in popularity?

But it wasn’t until the 1970’s that wind power really began to surge in use. As oil prices started rising, so did mass interest in renewable sources of energy. The government began putting funding into wind power research and development, universities began offering courses in wind turbine operation, and a growing number of wind turbine manufacturers started opening.

In 1978, Congress passed The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), which is said to have been one of the most effective measures designed to promote the use of renewables. The act required electric utilities to interconnect with renewable power production facilities and is credited with having brought on 12,000 megawatts of non-hydro renewable generation capacity.

In 1980, shortly after the passage of PURPA, the first utility-scale commercial wind farms popped up in California.

In 1992, the federal government passed the Energy Policy Act, designed to further the commercialization of renewable energy and energy-efficient technology. Among other measures, the Act introduced the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit (PTC), a corporate tax credit for renewable sources, including (but not limited to) wind. The PTC has expired and been expanded and extended several times since its creation, and is still in place today, along with many others and both the state and federal levels.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy released the 20% by 2030 Report, which, as the name would suggest, declared it feasible to bring the country’s percentage of electricity from wind power to 20% by 2030. It laid out several recommendations for reaching this goal, including increasing wind manufacturing efforts, enhancing transmission infrastructure, and streamlining the process of siting and permitting turbines. The Department of Energy’s 2015 Wind Vision report added onto the 2008 version, asserting that through similar steps, it is possible to reach 35% wind energy 2050.

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In 2013, the U.S. deployed its first grid-connected offshore wind turbine, which floats on a concrete composite platform in the Penobscot River in Maine. Its success paved the way for the construction of the first offshore wind farm, called Block Island Wind Farm, a five-turbine operation off the coast of Rhode Island built in December of 2016. Today, the U.S. is equipped to install an estimated 22,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind power by 2030.

What does wind power look like today?

Through direct policy efforts and tax incentives, wind power has become one of the most widespread forms of clean energy in the U.S. In 2016, ‘wind turbine service technician’ was named the fastest-growing job of the decade. By 2019, wind energy production levels were high enough to power over 32-million U.S. homes. And the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that the prevalence of wind power will only continue to grow by 14 percent in 2020.

While wind has become a booming source of energy, there’s still work to be done to increase its prevalence across the country.

The growth of wind power has not been evenly distributed across the U.S., however. Out of 57,636 wind turbines spread across the country, the majority are in the Northeast and Midwest. Yet, several states in the Southeastern region of the U.S. — like Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia — still do not produce any wind power. This is in part due to the fact that wind, as a resource, is not equally available across the country: The Great Plains, for example, have the highest wind speeds in the country, while the Southeast has some of the lowest. The faster the winds, the greater the energy that’s produced.

But this disparity is also the result of policy gaps. While the majority of states have Renewable Portfolio Standards (goals or policies mandating that a proportion of its energy comes from renewable sources) in place, most of the Southeastern region of the U.S., including states like Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama, still does not.

While wind has become a booming source of energy, there’s still work to be done to increase its prevalence across the country. Policy efforts and tax incentives are shown to be an effective way to increase the use of renewables like wind power and eventually, decarbonize our economy.

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Audrey Carleton

Audrey Carleton is a freelance environment and culture journalist based in Toronto.

Toronto, Canada