Farmers discuss harvest of windAL J. LAUKAITIS - Lincoln Journal Star
Nebraska farmers facing a harvest of depressed prices for corn may have a brighter future in the coming decades with an alternative crop: wind turbines.
"We are the Saudi Arabia of wind," Gov. Mike Johanns said at Wednesday's first Nebraska Wind Energy Forum.
Wind is an untapped resource in the Midwest, much like ethanol was decades ago, he said, adding that the state has enough strong winds blowing over its hills, valleys and plains to meet all its electrical energy needs.
Nebraska ranks sixth in the United States in terms of wind energy resources. A four-year study completed last year shows that most of the state's strongest winds blow in the Sandhills region near Valentine and near Kimball in the southwest corner of the Panhandle.
So far only four wind turbines have been built - two near Springview and two north of Lincoln. They generate a total of three megawatts. The governor says Nebraska has enough wind energy resources to generate 99,000 megawatts of electricity.
Renewable energy experts say Nebraska and other Midwestern states are ripe for wind energy development and farmers could reap sizable profits by leasing their land to electric utilities instead of crowing crops that don't bring much money in the marketplace.
Retired farmer Chuck Goodman will earn more than $6,000 in royalties this year from three wind turbines on his Alta, Iowa, farm. That's on top of the $2,250 he gets paid annually for having the turbines on less than one acre of land. That same acre would bring him anywhere from $100 to $200 this harvest season. Sixty-three of his northeast Iowa neighbors are doing the same thing as partners in one of the largest wind energy farms in the world.
"Man, what a difference this is in income for this small farm," Goodman said at the wind energy forum.
About 100 representatives from government, utilities, environmental groups and interested parties attended the all-day event at the state Capitol. The goal of the forum was to highlight efforts in the region to develop wind-generating resources and to explore opportunities to boost the state's agricultural economy.
Other states - like Iowa, Colorado and Wyoming - are further ahead of Nebraska when it comes to wind energy development. Johanns noted that Colorado has 21 megawatts of wind power online and 36 megawatts in the works just south of Sidney near the Nebraska-Colorado border. Wyoming has 73 megawatts and 30 more in the planning stages. Iowa, which ranks 10th nationally in wind energy resources, generates 242 megawatts through wind turbines.
"States with very similar wind resources are ahead of our state," Johanns told the audience. "Are we in Nebraska missing an opportunity? . . . Some have suggested that Nebraska could be a powerhouse wind-energy exporter."
The governor said many barriers need to be overcome, but he is committed to expanding the state's renewable energy resources. He said he has asked for a report from key sponsors of the forum within 60 days.
Robert Dixon, the deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy and keynote speaker at the forum, said wind energy is not only good for balancing the nation's energy portfolio, but is also good for the environment and the economy.
Dixon said the cost of producing electricity from wind turbines has gone down substantially in 20 years and is now competitive with coal. In 1979, the cost was 40 cents per kilowatt-hour. Today it's 4 cents to 6 cents per kilowatt hour and is projected to fall to 2.5 cents to 4.5 cents by 2003.
"Wind energy is the new cash crop," Dixon said, adding that his boss, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, has set a goal of producing 5 percent of the nation's electricity by wind turbines by 2020.
Glenn Cannon, with Waverly (Iowa) Light and Power, said local farmers who lease their land for wind turbine development are holding onto the "wind rights" of their property much like water and mineral rights. He said Iowa offers special tax incentives to make it easier for utilities to develop wind turbine generation.
Cannon said wind turbines have been a boon to the local economy around Storm Lake, Iowa. He said Enron spent $75 million to build 259 wind turbines. The corporation has a $4.4 million annual operations and maintenance budget, half of which goes for payroll.
In an interview, Sally Herrin, education and communications director for the Nebraska Farmers Union, said wind turbines could benefit farmers but is not a long-term solution to their problems.
"It's a great idea for individuals. It's a niche and like other niches, it's not a structural solution for farmers," Herrin said. "It's not going to save all the farmers but for individuals - sure, it's great money."
Reach Al J. Laukaitis at 473-7555 or email@example.com.