The windmills scattered throughout the rolling hills and grassy expanses of the Great Plains are proof that farmers and ranchers were some of the original users of renewable energy.
(condensed from Associated Press, Feb 19) That changed when government-backed rural electric associations began extending utility lines to outlying areas in the 1930s. Wind-driven turbines that powered water pumps and farmhouse appliances were phased out. Many of the old windmills still stand, however, and farmers and ranchers are looking to the past to combat the growing cost of natural gas and stringing power lines to rural areas. “Back years ago, when I was a kid, we had wind chargers then, and batteries. Then the REA came in,” said Jim Simon, who grows wheat and corn near Marienthal, Kansas. It’s back to the future for Simon, who halved his electric bill by installing a 100-foot-tall wind turbine to generate electricity for his workshop. “Some places the wind doesn’t blow, but out in southwestern Kansas, it always blows,” he said. The new turbines are sleek, high-tech structures that look like giant, stripped-down pinwheels. Ron Prettyman examined a small turbine, bending the pliable carbon-fiber blades, during a recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory workshop at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. A hunting guide from Cleveland, Utah, Prettyman wants to replace his gas-fueled generator with a combination of wind and solar power at his ranch and on hunting trips. “It would cost me about $6,100 to bring an electric line to my place. I figure for $7,500 I can put in wind and solar and never have to make a payment,” he said. “And there’s something about being in this country and being independent that goes hand-in-hand.” The high cost of electrifying rural areas is boosting interest in renewable energy among farmers and ranchers, said John Thornton, an engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. “And you wonder how many of them are here because of what they read in the newspapers about California and rising gas prices,” Thornton said before starting a two-hour forum at the stock show. The cattle-auction arena was filled as Thornton and co-workers Byron Stafford and Trudy Forsyth discussed wind turbines, photovoltaic systems and kilowatts. About 500 people attended the three stock show forums, for which the three employees volunteered their time. Gary Schmitz, spokesman for the national lab, said there are no figures on the number of farmers and ranchers who use renewable energy. “I would think it is relatively small … small, yet growing,” he said. The Golden lab works with companies, other agencies and individuals to advance renewable energy. Research on using the entire corn plant to make ethanol underscores the opportunities farmers and ranchers have to be producers as well as consumers of alternative energy. “They could use the stalks and leaves, parts that now are just plowed under,” Schmitz said. The lab is also working with the Morgan County Rural Electric Association in northeastern Colorado to install solar-powered water pumps for farmers in remote areas. Staffer Dale Poe said the REA has set up two solar-powered well pumps to fill livestock water tanks. “When a guy comes in with a well a mile off our main line, the cost of building a new line is too high,” Poe said. It would have cost $20,000 to run a utility line to a ranch south of Brush. The REA paid $5,000 for the solar panels, and the rancher bought the rest of the equipment. Damon Struckmeyer’s family is thinking about using renewable energy for wells near Holyoke in northeastern Colorado. “For the power company to go out there would be prohibitive,” said Struckmeyer. He also wants to see if he can get annual royalties for allowing wind turbines on his land, as other landowners have. Forsyth, an engineer specializing in wind power at the energy lab, said cities and states across the country offer a variety of tax credits and incentives to install renewable energy systems. Utilities often buy excess power from consumers with wind and solar energy. The cost of a renewable energy system is sometimes folded into a mortgage, Forsyth said. Simon of southwestern Kansas a got tax break on his $20,000 wind-power system more than a decade ago. “If I remember right, it paid for itself in 3 years.”