Young by global standards, Boston is still one of the oldest cities in the United States. It has a fascinating and well-preserved history, with monuments, museums, and plaques everywhere you look. At the same time, it is a center of research and innovation, investigating the technologies that will shape our future. (Okay, I’m biased – I do love this city.) That dichotomy, respecting the past while looking towards the future, is also the story of wind power.
For Father’s Day, I went out to the Boston Harbor Islands with my family. We had a picnic on Spectacle Island, with a great view of Boston. The weather was perfect.
As it happens, the Tall Ships were in town. While aboard the ferry, we could see a number of the sailing ships docked along the waterfront, and more of them going in and out of the harbor.
This brought to mind a paper I had written on energy transitions in the United States. One of my observations was that the United States in 2010 used six times as much wind power per capita than it did in the Golden Age of Sail. That was a few years ago, so the numbers have changed since then. Let’s take another look.
Wind in the Golden Age of Sail
Through the late 19th century, wind was a significant energy resource for the United States. Sailing ships conveyed goods and people up and down the coast and across the Atlantic Ocean. Sailing vessels took fishermen out to sea and back home again. Mechanical windmills pumped water and ground grain. Massachusetts was a hub of the shipbuilding industry, constructing naval vessels like the frigate U.S.S. Constitution and clipper ships from Donald McKay’s shipyards, as well as the fishing boats that set out from Gloucester, New Bedford, and Cape Cod.
The first US steamship appeared in 1807, and steam gradually took over a larger share of nautical propulsion. Steamships accomplished this technological transition through diffusion, starting in specific high-value niches (such as river ferries) where their advantages justified their higher cost, then spreading to more applications as their performance improved and cost declined. We see the same pattern for the spread of electric lighting, or of solar power. Elon Musk explicitly invoked this pattern of technological diffusion with Tesla’s original Master Plan, beginning in small but high-value niches and branching out.
However, sailing ships did not disappear overnight; they continued in use for decades. Some of the ships you might see at a Tall Ships event are either replicas of or inspired by “clipper ships,” designed in the 1850s to operate in one of sail’s remaining niches, fast long-distance transport of high-value cargoes such as tea or spices. Prior to the resurgence of wind power in the 1990s, wind power reached its greatest utilization in the US around 1860 (in absolute terms) or 1810 (in per capita terms).
In 1860, the U.S. population was about 31 million. The nation had about 100,000 windmills and a sailing fleet of 4.5 million tons. I calculated that the energy harnessed from wind was around 5.65 petajoules; in the units of the day they might have noted it as 2 billion horsepower-hours.
On a per capita basis, wind power contributed 67 horsepower-hours (equal to 50 kilowatt-hours, although at the time the only use of electricity was in telegraph batteries). Compared to other sources, in 1860, wind power in total was greater than power from watermills; less than that obtained from draft animals; and roughly equal to the power output from human labor or to that of coal-fueled engines (in locomotives, steamships, and factories).
Wind was not the largest source of motive power, but still a significant one that accomplished tasks other energy resources could not.
Steam engines continued to move into more applications, until diesel engines came to dominate marine transport in the 20th century. Sailing vessels became limited to small recreational craft. Windmills for water pumping peaked around 1920 or 1930, and declined after that, although small wind turbines for electricity generation appeared in some rural areas.
Wind power, though, has made an astounding comeback in recent years. Increased deployment supported by state and federal policies led to rapidly declining costs and improved performance. Wind turbines and solar panels together provided 0.07% of US electricity in March 1997, nearly 1% in March 2007, and over 10% of US electricity in March 2017, most of that from wind.
In 2016, wind power generated 226,872 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. The Census Bureau estimates that the population of the US on July 4, 2016 was 323,148,587. Therefore, wind power in 2016 provided about 700 kilowatt-hours per capita. Some wind energy is still harnessed directly—like by the Tall Ships and water-pumping windmills—but most of the wind energy we use today comes from wind turbines. The per-capita wind power contribution is now about 14 times what it was in 1860.
I find that pretty remarkable.
What does the future hold for wind power? Well, it won’t grow its share tenfold in the next ten years, but its continued expansion seems likely.
Many regions have successfully integrated wind power into their electricity systems at relatively low cost, utilizing a combination of forecasting, turbine controls, geographic distribution, and grid flexibility. What were once considered difficult levels of wind to incorporate are now seen as simple. Taller turbines may enable wind power to spread in the Southeast.
Offshore wind, widely used in Europe, is now (finally) on the move in this country, too. Although some construction costs are higher, the environment allows for installation of much larger turbines that would be difficult to transport to sites on land. Larger turbines can access winds that are both stronger and more constant at higher altitude. New Bedford, a hub of the old wind industry of sailing ships, might become a hub of the new wind industry, with potential jobs in offshore wind turbine construction (subscription required).
A strong base, smart policies, technological advances, and a skilled workforce: wind will continue to provide clean energy, jobs, rural economic development—and power for sailing. Even if some of the new sails don’t quite fit in a Tall Ships event.