U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy U.S. Department of Energy Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
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Wind Farms Are a Winner

Wind Farms Are a Winner

Date: 4/9/2007

Contact: Stewart Truelsen

This is the text version. The audio file is no longer available from the American Farm Bureau Focus on Agriculture series.

If somebody had mentioned wind farms 70 years ago, it might have been considered a bad joke. In May 1934, one of the worst dust storms on record spread across the land from Montana and the Dakotas all the way to the eastern seaboard.

The study of air masses was new at the U.S. Weather Bureau, but it appeared that a shift in major air patterns was partially to blame for the dust storms. Huge masses of Pacific Ocean air became turbulent after crossing the Rockies and scoured out a big "dust bowl" on the other side.

Wind was associated with topsoil loss and crop disasters back then. Today, wind is more likely to be viewed by farmers as renewable energy. In fact, the states that spawned those dust storms rank high in wind energy potential today.

Wind power doesn't receive all the attention that biofuels do because we don't use wind energy it in our vehicle gas tanks, but wind is going to be a big player in America's energy future.

The American Wind Energy Association has a vision of wind energy supplying 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs by 2030. That's a big leap forward from the present, with wind just a sliver on a pie chart of electricity generation — less than 1 percent.

Most wind farms are on private land, typically agricultural land that is leased. There are a few developments on public lands in the West.

Susan Sloan, a spokesperson with AWEA, says hosting a wind farm is complementary to a farming operation. It doesn't have to replace what the farmer is already growing. The turbines themselves take up little land. "A wind farm can generate $33 to $66 an acre in additional income, and for not doing much of anything for it," she said.

Some very big companies are involved. Portugal's largest industrial company, EDP, recently agreed to buy the U.S. wind-farm company Horizon Energy for more than $2 billion. Horizon is in 15 different states with wind projects.

Wind power's attraction is as an inexhaustible, nonpolluting source of energy that uses no water to produce electricity. It looks even more promising when stacked up against the leading fossil fuel alternatives, coal-fired generation and natural gas.

The U.S. is blessed with a big supply of the world's coal, but traditional coal-fired power plants are big emitters of carbon dioxide and other gases. The debate about global warming is not likely to result in any reprieve for coal, unless expensive changes are made — retrofitting old plants or using coal gasification technology that is less polluting.

Natural gas is the leading source of new electricity generation capacity, but its price can be volatile. There is no price uncertainty with wind. Nuclear power and hydroelectric provide significant shares of electricity but both have major drawbacks with the public.

Wind is a variable source of energy, but a new wind farm undergoes a one-year period of site testing before construction to make sure the location is suitable. Sloan says reaction to wind farms in rural areas is mostly positive. They produce local income, jobs and tax revenue in addition to electricity and make a contribution to what the public says it wants — clean, renewable forms of energy.

Stewart Truelson is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series.

This information was last updated on August 04, 2011