Project Development, Wind Power

Curse of the Wind Turns to Farmers’ Blessing

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?

(Condensed from the New York Times, Nov 26) 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 counting crisp cash in their pockets and eyeing the sleek windmills known as turbines in their fields. “Basically, they’re paying me to let the wind blow,” said Mr. Schardin, 38, who has found that selling wind rights to his great-grandfather’s homestead can earn him a lot more than annual crops of corn and beans. 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, as part of the response to successive energy crises. 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 seen as prohibitive, is now nearly competitive with that of its rivals, all but eliminating what was once a major barrier. Around the world, wind generation of electricity expanded by 39 percent in 1999 alone. In Denmark, wind already supplies 10 percent of the country’s electricity, while in Germany’s northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein, it supplies some 14 percent of all electricity. 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. Both Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas 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. In Minnesota, landowners in the Lake Benton area can earn about $2,000 a year for each of the 200-foot- tall turbines that 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. “We cussed that wind for years,” said Jim Nichols, a Lincoln County commissioner, “and now it is turning out to be a godsend.” Of the 10 states ranked highest for wind potential, 7 are in the Midwest, because of a combination of wind constancy and the availability of open land. Minnesota is just ninth on the list, but utility officials say the winds that blow across Buffalo Ridge, in the far southwestern corner of the state, are tough to beat. At an average speed of 15 miles an hour, the winds there generate nearly twice as much electricity as 12- mile-an-hour winds, because the total power generated is a function of wind speed cubed. Xcel Energy, Minnesota’s largest utility, buys the electricity under contract for three to four 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. In Minnesota, the main momentum in the shift toward wind has come from the Legislature, which in 1994 imposed a requirement calling for Northern States Power, Xcel’s predecessor, to have 425 megawatts of wind power capacity in service or under contract by the end of 2002. But in Texas, where a deadline does not take effect until 2009, utilities are moving so quickly to approve wind power projects that state officials now say they are likely to meet the 2,000-megawatt target several years early. The goal, which amounts to about 3 percent of Texas’s generating capacity, was set last year by the Legislature and signed by Governor Bush as part of the rules for utility deregulation. 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 production is hostage to the wind, so that until storage technology can be developed, utilities that rely on it must also arrange for backup power sources. Another 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 to wind development 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. Even so, officials like Mr. Nichols have begun to sketch plans for an enormous wind power network that would stretch across three Great Plains states and be connected to the power grids that supply Milwaukee and Chicago. And in South Dakota, though projects are still in the talking stage, brokers have begun to make their way from farm to farm, offering royalties for wind rights. In places like Lake Benton, elected officials and farmers say they see the windmills as nothing but a gain, even if they do dwarf the grain silos that are a more familiar feature of the landscape. Property taxes paid by developers will cover 35 percent of this year’s county budget, and landowners flush with royalties say the windmills hardly disrupt their ordinary farm operations. Mr. Schardin, who sold 90 acres of wind rights for a one-time payment, said the $40,500 he pocketed was nearly as much as the going rate for the land. With the money, he and his family have settled old debts and put some money away for retirement, something he had never really envisioned. “I think the windmills are neat,” he said in his living room, as the bitter wind outside turned a little snow into a blizzard. “When you’re out there in the fields, and you look up, they’re sort of mesmerizing.”