Power Harvests

The salvation of many U.S. farmers may be blowing in the wind

During the Vietnam War, Daniel Juhl toiled as a missile-guidance technician. But when he left the service, he says, there wasn’t a lot of call for my training. So, I thought I’d turn my spears into plowshares.


Fifty years ago, farmers used rural windmills like that in the foreground to pump water. Today, these are giving way to behemoths (background) that pump electricity into the transmission lines powering cities. Warren Gretz/National Renewable Energy Lab.

Livestock can safely graze next to turbines. Cows even choose frequently to rest against the turbines’ support pillars. Warren Gretz/NREL

The only land lost from crop production are plots on which turbines sit and the roads for reaching each turbine for periodic servicing. Warren Gretz/NREL

Or, to be more literal, into energy-generating wind turbines. In 1978, Juhl entered the wind-farming industry, helping design and erect small commercial systems for others–first in his home state of Minnesota, then in California, Europe, and China.

A few years ago, he decided to build and operate his own wind farm. On patches of land amounting to 6 acres, which he leased from a nearby farming family in Woodstock, Minn., he built access roads and erected 17 turbines. For the past 2 years, this operation has been generating up to 10 megawatts (MW) of electricity, depending on the winds. The local utility buys Juhl’s commodity at about half of what residential customers will pay to use this electricity.

Heartened by the profitable cash flow of Juhl’s operation and his turbines’ low maintenance demands, the farmers from whom he leased land decided that they, too, were ready for a direct role in wind power. With Juhl’s help, they’re planning to install two units of their own.

Juhl expects wind turbines to be sprouting up far and wide in coming years. Talk to some farmer for half an hour, and he’ll understand what this is–just another cash crop, he says. It’s not much different from reaping wheat, he notes, except that your combines are 200 feet in the air.

Although pioneers of wind power in the mid-1970s tended to erect their wind farms on remote mountain peaks and passes, the present crop of wind advocates has begun turning to agricultural lands.

There’s plenty of untapped wind to be had there. Wind mappers rank regions on their ability to produce commercially significant power using a 6-point scale. The higher the number, the greater and more reliable the wind resource. Today, we’re developing commercial wind farms in areas rated class 4 to class 6, says Greg Jaunich, president of Northern Alternative Energy in Minneapolis.

Within 100 miles of every major metropolitan area, there’s at least a class 4 wind resource, notes Jaunich. Most of these are farmed areas, which is why he and other commercial developers of environmentally attractive, or green, power have been leasing land there.

Farmers welcome the second income these offer. In Iowa, each quarter acre that a farmer makes available to a developer’s turbine –often with blades spanning 150 feet–can yield royalties of about $2,000 a year, notes agricultural economist Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Adds Brown: In a good year, that same plot might produce $100 worth of corn.

Farmers who develop those wind resources themselves can reap far bigger bounties–up to perhaps $20,000 per turbine annually, Juhl claims.

Globally, wind generation of electricity has nearly quadrupled over the past 5 years, and in the United States, it’s expected to grow 60 percent this year alone. As farmers struggle to make ends meet, some are now finding salvation in this new ‘crop,'” Brown observes. It’s like striking oil, except that the wind is never depleted.

Profitable wind power

The profitability of wind power has blossomed over the past few decades. A kilowatt-hour (kWh), the basic unit of delivered electricity, is equal to the energy consumed by a 100-watt light bulb burning for 10 hours. In the mid-1970s, commercial wind turbines cranked out electricity at 30 cents or more per kWh. That was a staggering amount, considering that coal-fired plants were generating it for about 2 cents/kWh.

Today, some wind turbines can generate power for less than 6 cents/kWh while utilities are, in some cases, charging customers more than twice that. Large wind farms sited where the air flow is reliable and strong can now produce electricity for as little as 3 cents/kWh–40 percent less than was possible with the best turbines a mere 5 years ago. For comparison, earlier this year, power-strapped California utilities were forced at times to buy electricity on the spot market for up to 33 cents/kWh.

Compared with more traditional–and more polluting–forms of electrical generation, wind power can be competitive economically, notes energy economist Florentin Krause of the International Project for Sustainable Energy Paths in El Cerrito, Calif. It’s dirt cheap, he says.

Indeed, he’s found that the cost of wind-generated electricity is now about half the cost of nuclear power if all expenses–from facilities’ construction and maintenance to demolition and disposal–are taken into account.

Solar photovoltaic electricity and other types of renewable power, he observes, typically need a substantial subsidy, such as a tax break, to even come close to competing with power from fossil-fired and nuclear plants.

What’s more, Krause points out, unlike large, traditional generating stations that can take years to construct, wind turbines can be erected in 3 months–and they operate without spewing the greenhouse gases that fuel global warming.

The most impressive aspect of wind power to Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C., is the magnitude of the supply. The U.S. wind-power potential, he says, is comparable to or larger than Saudi Arabia’s energy resources. In fact, Brown’s research indicates that all current U.S. electricity needs could be met from wind resources in just three especially breezy states: North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas.

Embrace the wind

Even so, utilities have been slow to embrace the wind, and most farmers remain unaware of the value of the breezes rushing over their fields, notes Lisa Daniels. That’s why she founded Windustry. The 6-year-old Minneapolis organization has provided state farmers and rural landowners, including Native American communities, with a nuts-and-bolts overview of wind’s prospects and what it takes to harness that potential.

Windustry and the American Corn Growers Association, based in Washington, D.C., recently banded together to help landowners nationwide find ways to overcome the obstacles to owning the infrastructure to generate wind power.

Consider financing. From Juhl’s experience, one of the biggest obstacles to small-scale wind farming is a need to educate bankers. Unlike most other businesses, he says, wind systems have a positive cash flow right out of the box. Each year, they produce enough crop’ to pay the debt, to pay expenses, and to put money in your pocket. With no experience in such investments, the banks were dubious–and reluctant to issue a loan.

Independent owners of renewable-energy systems, which include wind farms, face yet another formidable challenge–negotiating with the local utility to sell their product at a profitable rate. Most small wind farmers lack the leverage and experience to cut good deals, according to speakers at last month’s American Wind Energy Association’s meeting in Washington, D.C.

Another disadvantage for wind farmers comes from regulatory hurdles. Big central-station power plants typically need to clear these hurdles just once to put 500 MW on line. In contrast, to get the same wattage on line, small-scale wind generators may collectively go through these transactions 200 or more times–and in as many regulatory jurisdictions.

Getting the crop to market

Perhaps the biggest constraint to wind power’s growth is getting the crop to market. The greatest technological need for rural wind-power development, Swisher argues, is not better turbines or electronics but transmission infrastructure. Overcoming this, he says, is our number one long-term priority.

Linda Taylor, Minnesota’s deputy commissioner of energy, agrees. Moving electricity from rural turbines to energy-gobbling cities, she says, is the only real sticking point for massive wind development.

It’s already constraining development of Buffalo Ridge in southwest Minnesota, where winds blow steadily 320 days a year. Hundreds of turbines there are slated to deliver 450 MW of wind by the end of next year. However, Taylor told Science News, we could easily get 3,000 or 4,000 MW of wind energy out of that area if we could get the transmission problem resolved. That’s enough energy to power some 1 million homes.

R. Nolan Clark, an agricultural engineer and director of the Agriculture Department’s Conservation and Production Research Laboratory in Bushland, Texas, sees much the same problem in his part of the country. Since most transmission lines outside of urban areas were installed in the 15 years following World War II, they are, in his words, old and antiquated.

Sized to carry power needs of the 1950s, they’re hard-pressed to satisfy the far more electricity-hungry households throughout even rural America today. As a result, many of these lines can’t transmit more power, he says. Indeed, Taylor observes that any additional power fed into such lines in her state can and often does overload them. This shuts the whole system down, she says.

These limitations highlight a major disconnect between the way power lines are configured and the new needs of small, distributed generators. An analogy with blood circulation illustrates the problem. Big trunk lines, like arteries, branch into successively smaller lines, like capillaries, which feed local areas including individual residences. Operators of distributed-power systems usually have access only to the smaller lines, although their needs require a large artery.

Upgrading rural lines would solve the problems, but at a cost of up to $1 million per mile, Swisher notes. An alternative plan might use wind to generate hydrogen on the farm, and off the grid, and then to pipe hydrogen to cities for use in automotive fuel cells (see box, below).

Electricity for distribution

For now, however, most developers aim to use wind to generate electricity for distribution and sale by commercial utilities. Already, a few big projects are in the works.

A 300-MW wind farm is being constructed along the Oregon-Washington border, where transmission lines can handle the load. This project will become the world’s largest wind-harvesting system.

But a Goliath 10 times that size, tentatively named the Rolling Thunder project, is on the drawing board of Jim Dehlsen, founder of the pioneering wind-turbine company Zond, which was bought out by power giant Enron Corp. If built, this South Dakota network of turbines would be one of the largest energy projects of any kind in the world, points out Brown of the Earth Policy Institute.

Windustry, however, is banking on small farm- and ranch-owned operations becoming the backbone of U.S. wind-power development. To foster that, Daniels says, her group is trying to see if next year’s federal Farm Bill can include incentives for the development of farmer-generated commercial power. These might include guaranteeing bank loans, easing access to transmission systems, and facilitating development of wind-electric cooperatives. After all, Daniels argues, wind is the best new crop to come along in many years.

Moreover, she points out that small-scale wind farming keeps much of its income in the local economy. That’s good because wind resources are often strong in areas with poor soils. In such areas, it doesn’t take a huge investment to make a big impact. A few Minnesota wind farms have basically resurrected several small towns, Taylor notes.

And that’s just the beginning, Brown says. He anticipates that people–call them wind prospectors–skilled at pinpointing the best places for wind farms could soon assume a role comparable to that of the petroleum geologist in the old energy economy.

Will rural winds power urban cars?

Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the new, highly efficient fuel cell engine that every major automaker is now working on, says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. With Daimler Chrysler planning to roll out its first emissions-free, fuel cellpowered cars in 2003, he says, Ford, Toyota, and Honda will probably not be far behind.

What if electricity from wind-powered turbines in North Dakota broke down water into hydrogen, which could be piped 1,600 miles to Chicago vehicles? Bill Leighty, director of the Leighty Foundation in Juneau, Alaska, presented results from a new study that projected the economics of this 2010 scenario.

Last month at the American Wind Energy Association’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., he described a system in which operators in North Dakota would use 4,500 MW of wind-derived electricity to power off-the-shelf electrolyzers. The system would then pressurize the hydrogen gas and feed it into 2-meter pipelines.

The economics of this scenario remains vexing. Its cost would be 30 to 45 percent more per unit of energy than that of building electrical transmission lines to link the Dakota wind farms with the power grid serving Chicago, the new study estimates. However, Leighty points out, breakeven could occur in other scenarios. For example, today’s considerable research efforts could lead to fuel cells that are somewhat cheaper to make and operate.

Moreover, he adds, there are potential advantages to a hydrogen pipeline that economists currently find hard to value. For instance, it would–as its natural gas counterparts do–store several days’ worth of energy in the system. Therefore, temporarily becalmed turbines wouldn’t disrupt downstream operations.

Also, it may prove less expensive to add distributed sources, such as wind turbines, to a pipeline route than to a transmission line.

Finally, there’s the potential that pollution taxes in the future could significantly increase the cost of fossil-fuel systems and tilt the economic balance in favor of emissions-free power, including fuel cells. Indeed, many energy analysts argue that the only way the United States could ever meet the projected caps on carbon emissions being discussed under the Kyoto Protocol (SN: 12/20&27/97, p. 388) would be to tax people who spew carbon dioxide from combustion engines and boilers.

Within a decade, Leighty predicts, a technology harnessing wind to create hydrogen for fuel cells could become economically competitive.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Earth