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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 since 1981.

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 cent higher.

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, Wis.

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.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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