A Free-Market Energy Blog

Wind Energy is Ancient (the infant industry argument for subsidies does not apply)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- November 8, 2010

 The use of wind power is as old as history.”

– Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 62.

The day after the election, the New York Times cutely titled an editorial, “New Energy Outfoxes Old in California.” The Houston Chronicle dutifully reprinted it.

Problem is, what the Left sees as new energy is really ancient, and what is seen as old is really new. Coal, oil, and gas are several hundred years old; renewable energies are as old as human time. Solar and wind and falling water and burning plants–renewables all–are caveman energies.

This textbook from 1838 (is this old enough for you, New York Times?) explained the problem with wind, a problem that is at the center of the debate 172 years later.


Here are some quotations to show that wind is ancient, as energy historians have documented. Perhaps our newspapers can reverse the tags for their next op-ed on the subject.


“Energy from the wind is not new. Two hundred years ago windmills were a common feature of the European landscape; for example, in 1800 there were over 10,000 working windmills in Britain. During the past few years they have again become familiar on the skyline especially in countries in western Europe (for instance, Denmark, Great Britain and Spain) and in western North America. Slim, tall, sleek objects silhouetted against the sky, they do not have the rustic elegance of the old windmills, but they much more efficient.”

– John Houghton, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 7.

“Before rural electrification in the 1920 and 1930s, more than 8 million Midwestern windmills pumped water, made electricity, and ground grain. Carbon-fired power plants made these small windmills obsolete.”

– Dennis Hayes, The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair (Washington: Island Press, 2000), p. 39.


“Wind energy has been used since at least 200 B.C. for grinding grain and pumping water. By 1900, windmills were used on farms and ranches in the United States to pump water and, eventually, to produce electricity. Windmills developed into modern-day wind turbines.”

– Report of the National Energy Policy Development Group to the Honorable George W. Bush, National Energy Policy: Reliable, Affordable, and Environmentally Sound Energy for America’s Future, May 2001, p. 6-6.

“Wind power also has considerable potential in some developing countries. Employed widely by American Midwestern farmers in the twenties before rural electrification, wind generators are proving effective in similar settings in the Third World.”

– Christopher Flavin, “Electricity for a Developing World: New Directions,” Worldwatch Paper 70, Worldwatch Institute, June 1986, p. 52.

“The most numerous windmills of the nineteenth century were of a very different design: they served small farms and railway stations on the windy Great Plains during the period of rapid westward expansion.”

– Vaclav Smil, Energies (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), p. 125.

“Until the early nineteenth century windmills in common use were roughly as powerful as their contemporary water-driven mills. We have no reliable estimates for earlier centuries, but after 1700 European post mills rated mostly between 1.5 and 6 kilowatts, and tower mills between 5 and 10 kilowatts in terms of useful power.”

– Vaclav Smil, Energies (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), p. 125.

“Early in this century Danish industry relied on wind power for one-quarter of its energy, and 150-200 megawatts of wind capacity were installed throughout the country.”

– Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy: Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81, Worldwatch Institute, January 1988, p. 36.



“Wind energy is not some exotic new technology like nuclear power. Only wind energy’s current manifestation is new. We have lived peacefully with the wind before, and we can do so again. Wind turbines could become as common on the European landscape as windmills once were.”

– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), p. 482.


“The LDCs may well find considerable overall benefit in the use of wind power as a prime source of mechanical power, as well as in the generation for electricity, by harking back to small-unit technologies that proved so useful in rural Europe and America not too long ago.”

– Panel on Renewable Energy Resources, Energy for Rural Development: Renewable Resources and Alternative Technologies for Developing Countries (Washington: National Academy of Sciences, 1976), pp. 7-8.

“Another technology increasingly used to harness nature’s power was the windmill. Originating in China, it made its way across Europe into Britain, from the South and the East, by the end of the twelfth century. This technology was a valuable introduction in regions with little water, which needed power to meet the growing demand for industrial products. The Domesday Book, in 1086, recorded 6,082 water or wind mills in England; by 1300, there were over 12,000 mills.”

– Roger Fouquet and Peter Pearson, “A Thousand Years of Energy Use in the United Kingdom,” The Energy Journal, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1998, p. 7.

“Energy from the wind is not new. Two hundred years ago windmills were a common feature of the European landscape; for example, in 1800 there were over 10,000 working windmills in Britain. During the past few years they have again become familiar on the skyline especially in countries in western Europe (for instance, Denmark, Great Britain and Spain) and in western North America. Slim, tall, sleek objects silhouetted against the sky, they do not have the rustic elegance of the old windmills, but they much more efficient.”

– John Houghton, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 7.

The windmill . . . had been developed in Persia in the seventh century. By the thirteenth century, windmills were common in Europe, with significant advances being made by the Dutch and the English.”

– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 4.

“The role of wind energy has historically been a major factor in the development of human civilization, with wind powering the early sailing ship as well as the first major source of mechanical power, the windmill.”

– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 513.

“From ancient times up until the nineteenth century, the manufacture and use of sailing ships determined the economic and political power of nations. The first known use of sailing ships was by the Egyptians in 2800 B.C.”

– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 516.

“The first uses of the wind for mechanical power appear to have been developed in Persia, where, in the province of Segistan, water was pumped for irrigation by windmills. Between the seventh and tenth centuries, windmills were firmly established in Persia.”

– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), pp. 519-520.

“The first account of windmills in the Western world was in the twelfth century, when, in 1105, a French permit was issued for construction of windmills. In 1180, a Norman deed reports the existence of a windmill in Britain. . . . By the thirteenth century, windmills were common in northern Europe.”

– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 520.

“During the latter part of the thirteenth century, more than 30,000 windmills operating in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and England produced the equivalent (in mechanical power) of 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.”

– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 521.

“By the end of the nineteenth century, a mature industry had developed in the midwestern United States to equip homesteaders and ranchers with mills. Between 1880 and 1900, the combined capital investment of the American windmill industry increased from less than $700,000 to $4.3 million. At the same time, fierce competition spurred the development of lasting and efficient machines.”

– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 522.

“U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company of Batavia, Illinois, conducted intensive experiments in 1882 and 1883 on various kinds of windmills to determine the best possible machine for use. Part of their investigation involved building windmills to the specifications offered by Englishman John Smeaton, in his work of the previous century. Smeaton observed in 1759 that fewer sails were needed to extract the equivalent amount of power.”

– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 522.

“The American windmill industry continued to grow in the early twentieth century, until other sources of power invaded the prairies. In the 1920s, companies began to develop wind-powered electric generators. By the 1930s, the death knell was sounded for wind machines of both the water-pumping and the electric-generating variety [by] the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) [which] . . . provide[d] federally subsidized power to America’s farmers in regions remote from privately financed power plants.”

– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), pp. 523-24.

“During the second World War, a massive 1,250-kilowatt wind electrical station was operated at ‘Grandpa’s Knob’ in the mountains of central Vermont. . . . The 1,250 kilowatts of power that the wind generator produced during sporadic periods of operation were fed into the lines of Central Vermont Public Service Corporation. The plant was conceived and designed by Palmer C. Putnam, an engineer who had become interested in wind power in the early 1930s when he built a house on Cape Cod only to find both the winds and electric utility rates ‘surprisingly high.’”

– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), pp. 541-42.

“The Federal Power Commission became interested in the Grandpa’s Knob experiment during World War II, and commissioned Percy H. Thomas, a senior engineer of the commission, to investigate the potential of wind power production for the entire country. Thomas’ survey, Electric Power from the Wind, was published in March 1945.”

– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 545.

“With wind energy, one is not dealing with exotic new techniques. Windmills have been used for centuries for pumping water and other purposes, and within the past century they have been widely used in rural areas to generate electricity.”

– Sam Schurr et. al., Energy in America’s Future: The Choices Before Us (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 311.

“The winds, turning more mills than ever before, pump water, grind grain, churn, and do a score of little tasks for a surviving domestic industry; but they list not to blow with enough regularity or violence to keep wheels spinning and mills going.”

– Walton Hamilton and Helen Wright, The Case of Bituminous Coal (New York: Institute of Economics/Macmillan, 1926), p. 3.

“Windmills, solar power, indeed the entire panoply of favored alternatives, are not new or revolutionary inventions. They do not arise from newly discovered principles of science; neither are they based on, nor do they epitomize, fundamental changes in engineering capabilities. Indeed, most alternative energy technologies are more stone-age in character than high-tech: burning wood and trash, tapping hot springs, capturing running water and the wind. The most exotic of the alternatives, solar photovoltaics, is based on the scientific phenomenon whose discovery yielded Einstein a Nobel Prize, and led to the first solar-electric cell being demonstrated in 1925. We have had more than ample time—75 years—for this technology to following long-standing commercialization trajectories were it going to do so.”

– Mark Mills, Getting It Wrong: Energy Forecasts and the End-of-Technology Mindset, Competitive Enterprise Institute, February 1999, p. 30.


  1. Jon Boone  

    Nice distillation of the history of wind “power.” Of course, even older applications for using wind as fuel involved sailing vessels and flying kites. What is remarkably silly about the editorial from the paper of record is that the writer is evidently clueless about how wind energy translates into tail wagging the dog power–power available on the windmill’s caprice, largely uncontrollable, making people wait on it rather than the other way around.

    I’d love to see California’s 37 million people draw their electricity only from the preferred “renewable” portfolio–wind, solar, biomass, small hydro–all these new technologies that have been around since Noah. But, hey, no cheating by drawing in real modern power from other states and countries. No natural gas from Mexico. Or coal from British Columbia or Wyoming. No nuclear from anywhere.

    I’d pay to watch the theatre that would ensue when Los Angeleans tried to pump their gas from wind powered stations. Some might even be able to fill their tanks, if they waited long enough. Imagine the lines…. And the anger.


  2. John Droz  

    Good job, Rob.

    On a related note, last year I spoke to the head technical person at NYSERDA (NYS agency of energy experts) about wind energy. I asked him two questions:
    1 – where is the independent scientific evidence that wind energy is an appropriate cost/benefit solution to our energy and environmental needs?

    His answer: “We don’t have any — and none is needed, as wind energy has been around for thousands of years.”

    2 – Why is NYS so heavily promoting and subsidizing wind energy?

    His answer “Because wind energy is a new, infant industry.”

    He saw no contradition in his comments. Such is the mentality of many of the political agenda promoters we are dealing with.


  3. Just another Mike  

    I’m not really sure what the purpose of this post was.

    Humans have used alot to convert the movement of air into another form of mechanical energy? This has some bearing on modern energy policy… how?

    I guess if you wanted to blur the line between local use of mechanical wind power with large scale deployments of electric wind power the best way to do that is put up a bunch of quotes about how we used wind power for some other purpose and let readers eat it up.

    The fact of the matter is that the current wind industry is nothing like the ones quoted above. The mechanical use of wind was for onsite consumption. The energy garnered could not be transported very far or stored.

    The modern wind indusrty is a supplement to an existing system. It is capable of transporting the energy created over vast distances and developing technology (plus existing pump storage) and reduce the perishability of its energy.

    As you can see there is a bit of a difference between the two so I once again wonder what the purpose of this post was. Jjust because we have known about the principles behind renewable energy technologies for quite some time does not mean we have had the knowhow to effectively harness them.

    If I wanted to be particularly banal I could say we’ve known how to use coal and oil for as long as humans have known about fire since that is how we liberate power form them, but that would be ignoring the technological developments that were needed to convert their potential chemical energy into useful electric or mechanical energy. Wind and soalr are in the same category: we’ve known about them for a while but are only now developing effective ways of harnessing the power.

    Re: Jon boone

    As far as California just getting energy from renewables, I’m pretty sure the RPS calls for just 20%. And while I am somewhat unsettled by your desire to see your fellow humans suffer, I think your ire is misplaced. Why hate on wind when it can be part (not the entirety) of our power system? Developments in energy storage technologies and investments in transmission capacity can make wind a valuable contirbutor to future energy supply.


  4. Andrew  

    “Wind Energy is Ancient (and noncompetitive)”

    Rob, isn’t the second statement here arguably the far more important one? I notice you are already attracting criticism that the “ancient” nature of wind is irrelevant to the matter (and I know actually that it isn’t, after all, it has been around a long time with little advancement, which strongly suggests that it is unlikely to advance quickly in the future-making “investment” by the government in “research” of wind quite foolish indeed) in which case the fact that, in the here and now, what matters is whether wind is competitive, not whether it was. So it really should, I think, be more strongly emphasizes, except when talking about “research”, that the more important point is the latter, namely that the true market prices of “wind power” are simply non-competitive with other choices.


  5. rbradley  

    I just changed the subtitle from (and noncompetitive) to (the infant industry argument does not apply) to make the point that helping a ‘new’ or ‘young’ industry relative to fossil fuels is not accurate.

    I use a PowerPoint picture of an experimental wind turbine from the 1891 Scientific American in some of my talks–perhaps that would help get the point across to Just Another Mike.


  6. Jon Boone  

    Wind can be “a part of our entire energy system” in the same way that drunk drivers can be a part of our system of transportation. As I’ve said before too many times on this forum, wind energy might actually do some good on the grid if it were only intermittent and unpredictable but produced at a steady rate. It is the integration of its volatile variability that subverts its reason for being. AWEA’s PR rimshots about how “every little bit helps” represent nonsense. Wind generation per se is dysfunctional, making everything and everyone around it work much harder simply to stand in place.

    Sure, if the holy grail of variables–“energy storage technologies” (and don’t point to pumped storage since it’s uneconomic for wind balancing, mostly unavailable, environmentally problematic, and functionally out of phase with wind volatility)–ever manifests itself at utility scale, and is shown to be effective after considerable testing–then and only then should we be discussing wind as a fuel in a much larger machine mix. But not before. Building virtually dedicated transmission lines to bring wind’s drunken power to market, in the process protecting the flow of sober transmission, much in the way we would have to do if 20% of our highway’s drivers were inebriated, seems grotesque; certainly it is economically irresponsible. But of course such a thing is happening in West Texas. What a wonderful display of progressive silliness. What an environmental horror show.

    As it is, wind is an uncivil, environmentally treacherous Rube Goldbergesque farrago; an energy scam of enormous dimension. Its present incarnation differs only in degree, not in kind, with the ancient technology Rob documents, still able to convert energy to power only as a function of the cube of the speed of its highly variable and completely random energy source. Modern gliders are also somewhat different than kites, but share much the same principles. Why not require that, say, 10% of all air transport consist of gliders? And today’s sailing ships are much more sophisticated that the tall ships of yore. So why not demand that 15% of ocean transport come from modern sailing vessels. And see what happens….

    As for California, there are proposals, which will likely pass with the current administration there, that would require the state to use “approved” renewables for a 35% of the state’s electricity. But why stop there? Why not give the majority what they seem to want and go whole hog with green pork?


  7. Just Another Mike  

    Jon Boone:

    First off you are correct, the newer California RPS calls for a target in the 30%+ range not 20%, I was thinking back to a previous standard. My mistake.

    I would challenge your drunk driver analogy. Drunk drivers are by their nature completely unpredictable and uncontrollable; they provide no benefit to the system they are a part of.

    Wind energy, on the other hand, is more controllable and predictable. While not perfectly predictable, there are confidence bands that allow for near term forecasted wind output. Wind can be scheduled outside the spot market and, during times of volatility, can be compensated for with gas fired generation. This is hardly the picture of a drunk driver you put forth.

    In terms of energy storage, why wait for the technology to be proven on a utility level before implementing wind? If we already have the ability to mitigate the downside of wind generation (through peakers and wind curtailment) why not deploy wind and created an ADDITIONAL incentive for the development of storage technology? If the free market is driven by incentives and wind presents such a huge instability to the system, wouldn’t the market respond even faster with such a storage technology compared to a power market that only consisted of gas, coal and nuclear? Sort of a chicken and the egg problem you are setting up: no wind until there is utility grade storage but very slow development of utility grade storage if there is no intermittent resources.

    I am also unclear as to how you draw a parallel between wind technology and kites? Just because they both use wind doesn’t actually make them analogous. People don’t build wind turbines because they like wind, they build it (in part) because it is a hedge against volatile fuel prices, diversifies the power generation portfolio and has less negative externalities than other power options. The mandate of renewable generation isn’t done out of some adoration of the wind gods or sun gods, but as a means to develop a more robust energy system.

    Re: rbradley

    My complaint about your quotes mostly dealt with the ones referring to the old wind-> mechanical mills that are not analogous to modern wind turbines. I couldn’t care less how old the technology is, so long as it offers a viable path to future energy security. While this blog and many of its readers have a pessimistic outlook on the viability of wind most of what I read deals with the here and now and does not look to the future. Like it or not there is a finite amount of resources available to us as a society. If we do not take steps now to begin hedging against an energy constrained future we risk major economic and societal repercussions down the road. The free market fairy will not show up, sprinkle magic fairy dust over our economy and magically transform it when we realize the current generation mix is not sustainable. Changes of that magnitude require years of alterations, investments and trade flow shifts to bring that about. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


  8. Jon Boone  

    Your reliance on storage technologies to make wind functional is a McGuffin, a distracting plot device for moving the narrative of wind along but with no ability to do anything or effect the outcome of the story. Your belief that because wind exists, such storage must follow is simply that: faith based wishful thinking. I’ve been following the quest for such storage since Edison’s failure to find it, which continues today with research into redox/vanadium flow batteries. At the scale necessary for this kind of technology to work with wind, both the history of the search and the evidence from the physics involved seems like spitting into the wind. Whoever does invent such a contraption, which I think is extremely unlikely, will be richer than Microsoft–so there’s been a lot of incentive. Your build it and it will come cheerleading for wind reminds ever so much of the calls to build high-rise project housing for the poor during the War on Poverty. As I recall, the hoped for deus ex machina never materialized. And it’s extremely unlikely to do so for wind. Before putting the chicken of hundreds of thousands of 400-500 foot wind turbines across the landscape, I much prefer to have the egg of storage systems tested and perfected, since the latter is workable without the former–but the converse is not true.

    Your take that the mandate for renewables is a means to achieve a more robust energy system may be true for those who know little of science and have been weaned on Harry Potter. Who doesn’t want a better world? My cynicism takes over when those endorsing a renewables mandate (it’s hard to even type those two words together since the concept is so silly) exclude large hydro and especially nuclear from the portfolio, since the latter has the means to accomplish everything they say they want to achieve. On the other hand, the so-called renewable fuels are so dilute that they require enormous supplementation, which is make work for engineers, to be sure, but such supplementation completely, almost wholly, subverts the reason behind the deployment of these renewable mandates. For example, the cavalier way you suggest wind volatility can be tamed with natural gas units, as it is in some cases already, avoids mentioning the cost and thermal consequences involved. As Peter Lang once wrote on this kind of tandem, wind can’t reduce conventional capacity, it “is simply an additional capital investment,” a supernumerary that exists, in my considered view, ONLY because it has become, via incredibly successful lobbying, an excellent generator of tax shelters for multinational companies with a lot of revenue. All things being equal, the more wind, the more need for conventional generation–unless we invent storage systems, whichare about as likely as the smelting of pixie dust.

    And I stand by my simile of wind as a drunken driver. A drunk is not completely uncontrollable, either. But he careens over the road in random ways with dulled reflexes and reaction times, making the road dangerous for others. As you point out, they provide no benefit. As you should have pointed out further, drunk drivers are dysfunctional. As I point out with wind….


  9. rbradley  

    Just Another Mike:

    I wish ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’

    I’m afraid a pound of ‘cure’ is not worth an ounce of ‘prevention’.
    See this post: http://www.masterresource.org/2010/10/lay-to-california-i/


  10. nofreewind  

    Just Another Mike, you think wind energy output can be predicted? Did you ever look at a wind turbine output graph. Take a look at Ireland, over 1,000 MW of capacity.
    Keep paging back and you will notice that almost daily the output is 50% off the predicted output. How can a grid rely on this type of power source? Wind is completely disruptive to the bidding for the cheapest power that has been in place for many years.


  11. WillR  

    Wind output can be predicted? That is funny.

    Have a look at some of the reports on Ontario Wind Performance then check back in with further thoughts…

    Well maybe on second thought we can predict that wind performance will be dismal… 🙂


  12. Mike Giberson  

    Rob, what do you think of the argument that current commercial wind power is a new technology since the blades are driven primarily by lift rather than by drag; all of your examples are drag-type windmills except perhaps the Grandpa’s Knob turbine.

    Also whether the basic idea is old or new, it is clearly the case that turbine technology is improving – wind turbines today are more powerful and more efficient than wind turbines of 5 or 10 years ago.

    In any case I’m not sure much significance hangs on the answer. Whether old or new, the standard economic arguments in favor of subsidy would have to appeal to externalities (negative externalities avoided, positive externalities from investment in research, etc.) or maybe to some other version of a market failure story. “Infant industry” is more political fig leaf than reasoned economic argument. I suppose that pointing out the age of the technology allows one to expose as false the claim of infancy, but a more direct approach is simply to expose the fallacy of relying on “infant industry” arguments in public policy.


  13. rbradley  

    Good point that needs more discussion.

    First, the fact that wind was an early primary energy is important, and the fact that entrepreneurs have always been trying to utilize it in new ways….

    Second, the 1891 Grandpa’s Knob turbine really to me is the start of the ‘modern’ wind industry–but I would need to know more about the technology then versus now.

    And intermittency–the fact that this was the problem a thousand years ago and is still a major problem is a continuum to me.

    Infant industry is a political argument–yes. I tried to refute it with history. The externality argument is different.


  14. Jon Boone  

    Mike, Rob:
    Whether a turbine blades are affected by lift or drag doesn’t change the technology’s essential limitation. Yes, lift combined with making a turbine tall enough to engage stronger, steadier winds, has improved wind productivity over the last twenty years, taking its capacity factor from, say, 15% up to nearly 30%. Modern turbine design is about as efficient as it will ever be in converting wind energy to power. Engineers have done a splendid job making this happen.

    But you mistake higher wind production with improved benefits. As Kent Hawkins and others have shown, here on Master Resource, the greater the wind production, the more problems with integration, especially as they relate to decreasing the efficiency of thermal units on the grid.

    Once again, Rob. The problem with wind is NOT its intermittence. Rather, its the relentless continuous variability moment to moment. 1000MW of installed wind is much preferable to 5000MW of installed wind from a grid stability point of view.

    Modern wind machines are actually very efficient. The problem is the utterly random, highly volatile, extremely diffuse nature of their fuel source. Consequently, wind technology will always be an infant industry because its fuel will remain in perpetual arrested development.


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