Need More Electricity? The Answer
Is Blowin' in the Wind: More windmills popping
up across America
November 26, 2000 - Douglas Jehl -New York Times
Lake Benton, Minn. -- For generations, the
bittersweet question around the Schardin family table
was this: What in God's name was Theodore Schardin
thinking in 1884 when he stopped his wagon here, on
a desolate ridge blasted by every last gust of wind
that swept across the prairies?
All of a sudden, though, the Schardins and others
who have ended up trying to eke out a living in some
of America's windiest parts have found themselves
feeling pretty lucky that their forefathers staked
out land exactly where they did.
That blasted wind, it turns out, was worth something
after all. In a boom that seemed unimaginable a few
years ago, it has become the nation's fastest- growing
source of electricity, with capacity expected to double
in the next 13 months. And as utility companies race
to line up new supplies, farmers like Conrad Schardin
are pocketing cash and eyeing the sleek windmills
known as turbines in their fields.
"Basically, they're paying me to let the wind blow,"
said Schardin, 38, who has found that selling wind
rights to his great-grandfather's homestead can earn
him more than annual crops of corn and beans.
Landowners in the Lake Benton area can earn about
$2,000 a year for each of the 200-foot-tall turbines,
which stretch across 30 miles of farmland on the high
ground known as Buffalo Ridge. Some farms have one
or two of the turbines;
others have more than a dozen. Each turbine takes
up just one-eighth of an acre, and farmers and ranchers
are free to use the remaining land, though few crops
clear more than $40 an acre.
Xcel Energy, Minnesota's largest utility, buys wind
electricity under contract for 3 to 4 cents a kilowatt-hour,
not much more than the cost of power generated by
gas-fired turbines, the current source of choice for
utilities seeking new capacity.
"We cussed that wind for years," said Jim Nichols,
a Lincoln County commissioner, "and now it is turning
out to be a godsend."
Turning wind into power is nothing new, of course.
Windmills were common in the Midwest until the arrival
of rural electrification, and commercial wind farms
have contributed to California's electricity supply
But what is now under way, most experts say, is
a transformation on a much larger scale. With the
development of bigger, more sophisticated turbines,
the cost of wind-generated electricity, once prohibitive,
is now nearly competitive with that of its rivals,
all but eliminating what was once a major barrier.
For now, wind still generates far less than 1 percent
of the nation's electricity, with the bulk of the
projects in California. But across the country, wind
is increasingly being regarded by utility companies
as worthy of a larger role as the utilities struggle
to meet soaring electrical demands at a time when
oil and gas prices are steep and volatile.
By the end of next year, the Energy Department projects,
some 4,600 megawatts of wind power generation will
be in place, enough to provide for 1.7 million households.
That would be an increase from 2,500 megawatts today.
Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush
support tax incentives to promote the use of wind
over the more polluting fuels, so most experts believe
that no matter who ends up in the White House, the
trend is unlikely to wane.
With several large projects scheduled to be completed
next year, Texas, best known for oil and gas, is now
expected to be the next center of wind power development.
Ranchers and farmers better accustomed to being paid
for what lies under the ground are being offered royalties
for what blows across it.
Wind farms have sprung up recently in other parts
of the United States, including Pennsylvania and West
Virginia. A $16 million project recently began operating
in Madison, N.Y., about 80 miles west of Albany. But
because the amount of power available increases exponentially
with wind speed, large-scale projects are planned
for places ranked higher for wind energy potential
by the Energy Department, including the Great Plains
states and Texas, regarded as the Saudi Arabia and
Kuwait of wind power.
Together, South Dakota, North Dakota and Texas have
sufficient wind resources to provide electricity for
the entire United States, according to studies cited
by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. Last year, Richardson
set a goal of making wind's share of American electrical
capacity 5 percent by 2020.
In Minnesota, the main momentum in the shift toward
wind has come from the Legislature, which in 1994
imposed a requirement calling for Minnesota States
Power, Xcel's predecessor, to have 425 megawatts of
wind power capacity in service or under contract by
the end of 2002.
Another reason for the current development blitz
has been a congressional decision to extend for at
least another year what is effectively a subsidy for
wind power operations. Developers are guaranteed a
tax credit of 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour for their
first 10 years of operation, which is allowing them
to market wind power for as little as 3 cents, even
though the best-case production cost is at least a
But researchers at the National Renewable Energy
Laboratory in Golden, Colo. , have been working to
find ways to drive the cost down further through technological
advances, and federal officials expect it to drop
to as little as 2 cents per kilowatt-hour by the middle
of the decade.
Because it produces no emissions, is entirely renewable
and does not require dams or underground mines, wind
power ranks as one of the cleanest sources of electricity,
but it still has drawbacks.
One is that the turbines produce enough noise to
bother some nearby residents, and that is stirring
citizens' opposition to at least one project now under
review, near tract developments and farmland in Addison,
Separately, environmental concerns forced the transplantation
of another project, in the Tehachapi Mountains north
of Los Angeles, after the Audubon Society warned that
the turbines would pose a danger to flyways used by
the endangered California condor.
In states like North Dakota, which is ranked No.
1 in the nation in wind resources but still lacks
a wind farm of its own, another obstacle is a shortage
of transmission lines, a vital link in moving power
from the rural areas where it can best be produced
to the population centers where it is most needed.