More Farmers Seeing Wind As Cash Crop:
Wind Farms Are Springing Up From
Rural Fields Across the Midwest As a Once-Boutique
Alternative Power Industry Begins to Boom
Dec 11, 2007 - Chicago Tribune
At a time when most people choose to
avoid the harsh winter winds that roar past corn stubble
and whip up billowing dust clouds over table-flat
fields, farmers in the Thumb of Michigan now talk
about catching the wind and all the money that comes
Michigan's first commercial wind farm
-- a collection of 32 towering turbines that conjure
visions of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" --
is scheduled to begin operating in a few weeks, spurring
for some a near-gold rush mentality in this sparsely
Thousands of dollars in a guaranteed
annual harvest come with each windmill placed on a
farmer's land, and that lure has gone a long way toward
interrupting the horizontal sameness of vast corn
and bean fields.
"I can't wait till they get going,"
said Bob Webber, who turned over easement rights to
a portion of his property in Huron County for a proposed
second wind farm, with 42 turbines.
"I'm looking forward to seeing a lot
more of them. ... This would be a big deal for me,"
For generations the tallest structures
in the agricultural Midwest have been grain elevators,
but the rapid growth of the wind-power industry is
altering the landscape in states such as Iowa, which
has about 960 turbines, and Minnesota, which has about
860 turbines, according to the American Wind Energy
Association, a trade group.
Iowa and Minnesota rank third and fifth,
respectively, in annual electrical power generated
by wind (Illinois ranks 11th), and a utility executive
in Detroit said he envisions the tip of Michigan's
Thumb planted with more than 1,000 wind turbines.
The 32 Michigan turbines reach 400 feet from the base
to the tip of the rotor blade and are projected to
provide electricity to more than 15,000 homes served
by Wolverine Power Cooperative, in western and northern
Because of consistent wind speeds that
buffet the Thumb, a region that juts into Lake Huron
and Saginaw Bay, "Huron County is the sweet spot,"
said Trevor Lauer, vice president of retail marketing
for DTE Energy Co. The Detroit-based electric utility
has bought easement rights to 30,000 acres in the
county, taking advantage of good winds and what appears
to be a path of least citizen resistance.
"Agricultural land and wind play together
very well," said Lauer, adding that wind power has
"reached a tipping point. It's no longer a question
of if but when, and to what extent."
Iowa cashing in
Last month TPI Composites announced
it will open a factory in Newton, Iowa, to build wind
turbine blades. That will be the fifth turbine parts
manufacturer that has set up operations in Iowa in
the past two years, driven by a soaring national demand
for turbines. During the first nine months of this
year, Texas, the nation's leader in wind energy, installed
nearly 600 turbines. An additional 136 were scheduled
to be installed by the end of the year.
"The world of wind has been substantially
reshaped in the past three or four years," said Randall
Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy
Association. "There's a rush of capital into it."
There is, of course, a wide chasm separating
the dream of large-scale alternative power and the
actual implementation of it. Energy transmission problems
and political obstacles -- namely resistance from
people who find the turbines ugly or a Cuisinart-like
threat to birds -- loom large. Wind power accounts
for a mere 1 percent of energy generation nationwide.
And turbine proposals in resort and seaside areas
such as Cape Cod have provoked loud protests. Federal
tax credits are a vital lifeline to the industry.
But the investment in wind power is
taking root in sparsely populated areas of the Midwest
and across the country, due in large part to state
mandates forcing utilities to generate a certain percentage
of their electricity -- say, 10 to 20 percent -- from
alternative sources. At least two other wind power
ventures are under consideration in Huron County.
Michigan's entry into wind power is notable because
this state, by virtue of its long marriage to the
automobile industry, is perhaps the ultimate fossil
State officials say the wind farm due
to open around Jan. 1 will save Michigan residents
$4billion on power generation over the next 20 years.
"This makes a statement very clearly
that we think renewables [energy] will be part of
the future," said Craig Borr, executive vice president
The more immediate beneficiaries of
the gradual move to wind power are people like Bob
Krohn, who owns about 1,500 acres near the town of
Pigeon. Krohn spends most of his early mornings with
longtime friends, downing coffee at a round Formica
table at the Dutch Kettle, a keep-your-hat-on restaurant
where the most expensive item on the menu is $5.85.
The three turbines on Krohn's property will earn him
$18,000 to $30,000 a year, he said.
"We're so used to seeing them now,"
said Krohn, whose turbines are among the 32 in the
$90million project developed by John Deere Wind Energy.
On a recent frigid night in Bad Axe,
DTE officials invited 250 people to a hotel for a
prime-rib and open-bar schmooze designed to sell the
virtues of wind power. In Huron County, where the
median family income of $42,400 is 15 percent below
the national average, the utility is preaching to
a sizable choir.
Mary Jahr, a waitress at the Dutch Kettle,
said if she and her husband got windmills on their
160 acres in the western part of the county, "I might
be able to quit working."
Not all enthusiastic
The support, however, is not unanimous.
In the northernmost part of the county, along the
shore of Lake Huron, critics have raised objections
about the windmills' potential harm to birds and property
values. This is a lake resort area, popular in the
summertime. It's an eagle nesting site and part of
the migratory path of thousands of tundra swans.
"Our township is unique because it
is resort and agricultural," said Louis Colletta,
the planning commission chairman for Lake Township.
The township last month rejected DTE's
request to set up testing towers to measure the speed
and consistency of the wind. Colletta said there are
many questions to be answered about the wisdom to
installing windmills, "and we can't go at it too fast."
In that regard, Huron County is a microcosm of the
Russell Lundberg, director of the Huron
County Building and Zoning Department, said there
is growing acceptance of wind power in the county.
People see it as a way of preserving farmland and
the historical heritage of the region and, at the
same time, embracing new technology.
"What would I rather have in my back
yard? A subdivision of homes or a coal-burning power
plant?" Lundberg asked. "We're going to hear both
sides on this issue, but there will be more wind farms
here, no question about it."
- -- -
Power points: Particulars of wind turbines
Wind towers range from 200 to 300 feet,
with blades adding 100 to more than 120 feet in length.
SWEEP? The rotor sweep can approach
the length of a football field.
Turbine weight varies but can be more
than 50 tons, with rotor blades exceeding 40 tons.
Maximum rotor speed varies, from 11
to more than 22 revolutions per minute, depending
on the model.
- -- -
IN THE WEB EDITION
Watch a Tribune video report on the
first commercial wind farm in Michigan at http://www.chicagotribune.com/video/?slug=chi-071214wind-wn
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