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Inherit the wind


Fri, Dec 6th, 2002
Posted in Features

Over the past few months I have attended several public meetings in Preston dealing with the proposed Heartland Energy and Recycling project that, if built, will burn used tires to generate electricity. Proponents of the plant claimed that the environmental impact of burning 25 semi-loads of tires a day would be minimal to the area’s air and that the emissions would be well within current MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) guidelines. On the other hand I saw real concern among the local citizenry, who turned out by the hundreds, to speak out and say they were afraid that this proposed plant would adversely affect the personal health and overall well being of this community.

It got me wondering what sort of alternative methods of producing electricity might be available and appropriate in this area. I wondered if there were methods that would utilize renewable resources that would not end up producing emissions or pollutants.

With this in mind, I recently attended the Wind Energy Conference sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Conference in Minneapolis. There I learned that Minnesota has the wind potential to serve our entire state’s electrical needs seven times over. In fact, if this potential was truly realized our blustery Great Plains could become the Saudi Arabia of wind power.

Wind is now the world’s fastest growing electrical generation technology with an annual growth rate over 25 percent. Wind is actually a cash crop because it offers rural landowners and farmers a supplementary source of income that comes through leasing and royalty arrangements (generally around $2,000 per year for each turbine). With the cost of turbines coming down and various tax incentive programs increasing, the Midwest is currently leading the nation in the development of wind resources.

Last year 10 billion kilowatt hours were generated by wind plants in the United States. This natural, non-polluting energy source displaced about 6.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, 35,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 21,000 tons of nitrogen oxide that would have been produced by other traditional methods.

In a Minnesota Department of Commerce fact sheet it was reported that, "In 2001, wind turbines generated more than 800,000 megawatt-hours of electricity in Minnesota. That amounted to roughly 1.5 percent of Minnesota’s total electrical use and was enough to power more than 100,000 average residential households for a year. This places Minnesota second only to California in its use of wind power."

At this conference, Red Wing’s State Senator Steve Kelley said, "Minnesota could be energy self-sufficient in 15 years, with perhaps enough excess to grow bananas in January."

Wind, like all other energy technologies has an impact on the environment. However, unlike most convention technologies that have huge global impacts, the impact of wind is local.

In William McDonough’s new book, “Cradle to Cradle”, he reported, "From an eco-effective perspective, the greatest innovations in energy supply are being made by small-scale plants at the local level. The shorter distances reduce the power lost in high-voltage transmissions." This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to successfully combine the interests of business with the environment. It tells how both can win.

Some people are turned off by the look of wind farms—the tall towers and expansive blades. This, to some extent, can be minimized through turbine and wind plant design. However, because wind velocity increases with greater altitude--the taller the turbine--the better it performs.

Another concern I’ve heard over and over is that turbines kill birds. The truth is that the overall impact is low in comparison with other human-related sources of bird deaths. Bird deaths from wind energy are unlikely to reach 1% of those from other human-related sources, such as hunters, house cats, buildings and automobiles.

"They’re noisy," others complain. Although this was an issue with the early turbines, engineers found that by adjusting the thickness of the blades’ trailing edges and by orienting the blades upwind of the turbine power, they been silenced to some degree. Today, a wind turbine that’s about 270 yards away from a home is no noisier than a kitchen refrigerator.

"How much land does it take?" The Department of Commerce’s Fact Sheet claims, "Large wind turbines use only about a quarter acre of land, including access roads. Farmers can continue to plant crops and graze livestock right up to the base of the turbines."

The advantages of this clean, inexhaustible renewable resource are very attractive. There is no need to mine or dispose of anything. Wind energy produces no smog-forming emissions or pollutants. Most of the cost in getting the electricity is in the initial construction of the turbines. At the conference it was reported that turbines generally cost about one million dollars per megawatt.

My question is whether we have an obligation to take advantage of our wind resources. If we do, how do we do it?

"Start talking about it," was the reply I got when I asked a conference speaker this question. "People need information, they need answers and they need to believe it’s the right thing for themselves, their children and grandchildren." The woman paused, "Americans are more receptive than ever to the concept of sustainability."

As public demand for clean energy grows, and as the cost of producing energy from the wind continues to decline, wind energy will provide a growing portion of the nation’s energy supply. The Department of Energy estimates that by 2010, electricity from new wind power projects will be cheaper than electricity from new conventional power plants.

Until that time comes we can reduce our consumption and turn our lights off. We can purchase energy-efficient appliances. We can call our politicians and ask what they intend to do to help insure good, clean air and enough electricity.

Mark Thein, Economic Development Coordinator for Fillmore County said, "We are in the process of researching the wind benefits. If anyone wants to contact me with their concerns or comments, have them call 507-765-3822." Thein was interested in the possibility of having an informational meeting, of inviting some experts and perhaps taking a public tour of Buffalo Ridge or the Dodge Center Wind Farm.

The wind industry has arrived. For over 20 years I have attended various conferences where wind power was the focus. Generally these events were attended by people with long hear and wearing blue jeans. This conference was different—of the 600 men and women most were wearing business suits. This means the business industry is taking wind power very seriously.

I came away from the conference with new hope for our energy future. A hope that by utilizing the wind we will find a viable alternative to all the traditional polluting methods of energy production. After all, the Stone Age did not end because of a lack of rocks, as one of the speakers had pointed out. "It ended because there were other options."

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