There is a tendency to think of wind energy as a new form of technology, but it is not. Converting the power of the wind to electric energy is relatively new, but using the wind to aid human endeavors dates back to the first windmills that appeared in the Near East 1,200 years ago. If sailing ships are included in wind energy, it’s difficult to find a time in human history that wind was not a part of our energy portfolio.
Since wind is our constant companion, the Outer Banks history of wind energy’s impact on our civilizations is important to discuss. It’s not surprising that one of the potentially largest commercial wind energy fields in the world has been identified off the Outer Banks, located just due west of the town of Kitty Hawk.
The use of wind energy on the Outer Banks has a long and rich history, predated by at least 150 years of government efforts to develop it as an alternative energy resource.
Clear records are difficult to locate, but researchers have identified as many as 21 windmills in Dare County. We do have a record of what they looked like from illustrations made by Union soldier, Charles Johnson, of the 9th New York during the 1861 Hatteras campaign.
Johnson, who chased the Confederate forces across mosquito infested sands in the heat of the summer, likely had a more reserved opinion of the beauty of the Outer Banks than most visitors have. “These windmills, by the way, are about the only things picturesque on the Island, and as objects of study for an amateur artist, they are admirable,” he wrote.
The windmills were an important part of the local economy. Outer Banks fishermen would trade their daily catch with mainland farmers for wheat and corn, and the windmills, operating as grist mills, would grind the grains into flour.
There is speculation, but no indisputable proof, that a hurricane caused the end of the windmill era on the Outer Banks. The Great Hurricane of 1899 swept across the North Carolina coast in August of that year with a wind gust of 140 mph recorded before the Hatteras Village Weather Station anemometer broke … actually it was blown away.
The damage to the windmills that were typically on the water’s edge of the sounds would have been significant. There is still one windmill on the Outer Banks that is operating at the Island Farm on Roanoke Island, although that is a reproduction of the typical “post mill” that was most common. The more modern form of harnessing the wind’s energy is still evident in numerous places in Dare County.
Probably the best know wind turbine is the Bergey Windpower turbine located behind the Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills. It is not, however, the only one. The federal government erected a small turbine at Coquina Beach in South Nags Head to power the bathhouse. The turbine at Jockey’s Ridge State Park is easily visible from the road and helps offset the Visitors Center’s energy needs. There is also a wind turbine demo site that Dominion Power maintains at their offices located on The Woods Road in Kitty Hawk.
The most powerful and largest example of harnessing the wind is located at Jennette’s Pier, where three turbines generate a significant percentage of the facility’s energy at full power; the turbines are able to provide 50% of the energy needed to maintain the pier.