U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy U.S. Department of Energy Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
  • Printable Version
  • Bookmark and Share

Harvesting the Wind

Harvesting the Wind

Date: 1/1/2000

Location: IA

Miller, J. LandWorks Connection, 3,(1),

Chuck Goodman began harvesting a new product this year: wind energy. "It's like having an oil well in the sky," said Goodman, 71, of the three massive wind turbines towering over his 100-acre corn and seed bean farm near Buena Vista, Iowa. The turbines--200-feet tall with 80-foot blades--are high-tech descendents of windmills that once pumped water and ground grain on farms across the U.S. Despite their size, the turbines take up less than an acre, allowing Goodman to grow right up to their bases.

Eyesores to some, cash cows to others, the new turbines are generating "green" electricity for consumers and greenbacks for farmers and ranchers on windswept landscapes. For producers, wind energy can provide a hedge against fluctuating commodity prices. Farmers receive payments for leasing their land to energy companies for turbines and access roads. They also earn royalties for the power produced. Goodman estimates he'll earn about $2,000 from each turbine, including the $750 guaranteed lease payments. That $6,000 a year beats the $125-an-acre return on his bean crop this year. The checks come every three months. "That's money in my pocket," Goodman said.

The agreement is typical, said Ken Hach, Midwest regional manager for Enron Wind Development Corp. "It's not going to make anybody wealthy, but it's going to help level out the ups and downs of the markets," he said. Hach has seen rural communities embrace wind power, taking pride in their role as energy producers. They also gain economically. After the initial rush of construction, large wind farms require dozens of technicians to keep turbines running smoothly. Those are dollars that stay in the community. The Department of Energy predicts that wind power will add $60 billion in capital investment to rural America over the next 20 years, providing $1.2 billion in new income for farmers and other rural landowners.

Wind power was the world's fastest growing energy source in the 1990s, according to the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE). Technological improvements in the last 20 years cut the cost from 40 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) to between 4 and 5 cents kWh. Already competitive with coal and natural gas, the DOE expects the cost of electricity produced by wind to fall even more as the technology advances. Meanwhile, a push for energy deregulation and concerns about smog, acid rain and global warming are driving policymakers to require utilities to sell electricity from renewable sources. Eight states - Texas, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Minnesota, Nevada and Pennsylvania - require utilities to provide some "green" electricity. At least 36 utilities include wind energy as a component of their green power programs.

Congress, too, is considering a national standard for renewable energy. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is a strong supporter. His Wind Powering America Initiative sets a goal of using wind to generate at least 5 percent of the nation's electricity by 2020. That's up from less than 1 percent now. The goal is "relatively conservative," said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association. In the 12 months ending in June, the U.S. wind industry installed more than $1 billion worth of new generating equipment able to generate a record 1,073 megawatts (MW) of electricity.

Much of the new wind power was installed on Midwest farms. "We think there is a natural marriage between this technology and rural America," Swisher said. Three major "wind farms" in Minnesota and Iowa came on line in 1999. Two facilities near Lake Benton, Minn., have a combined 281 turbines able to generate 211 MW. The world's largest single wind power project is centered in Storm Lake, Iowa, which includes the Goodman property. Its 259 turbines can generate 193 MW of electricity, enough to serve 72,000 homes. Outside of the Midwest, Swisher sees wind power developing in several communities including West Sacramento, California, Umatilla County, Ore., upstate New York east of Lake Ontario and parts of New England.

Most U.S. wind sources remain untapped. Texas and the Dakotas alone have enough wind to power the nation, but that's unlikely to happen. Variable wind speeds make it unreliable as a primary energy source; energy companies and regulators view it as supplementary to fossil fuels. While places like the Dakotas have the strongest winds, they are far from energy-using population centers and lack suitable transmission grids.

Then again, not every community wants a giant propeller in their backyard. One Georgia college recently rejected three turbines on Lookout Mountain after neighbors complained they would spoil the view. Several federal and private studies are underway to determine what attracts birds to turbines, and what can be done in siting, construction, or operation to minimize or eliminate bird deaths. Round towers, for instance, don't provide birds with places to build nests.

And this evolving technology might not fulfill its promise. New technologies could advance to make solar or some other power source even more competitive than wind.

But in Iowa, Chuck Goodman is satisfied with the turbines on his farm. Enron spent three years measuring winds there. Turbines need at least 13-mph winds; the winds on Goodman's property averaged 17-18 mph. Goodman said noise from the turbines, which bothers some people, seem to keep the deer away. But it doesn't bother him any more than a house fan. "I call them gentle giants," Goodman said.

This information was last updated on August 02, 2011