Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wind Power Catches On in the U.S.

STORM LAKE, Iowa -- The winds of change are blowing over Buffalo Ridge in this corner of northwestern Iowa, where nearly as far as the eye can see gigantic propeller blades atop 60-meter steel towers move slowly in the breeze, casting darting shadows over corn and soybean fields like the wings of hundreds of prehistoric birds.

U.S. Federal energy officials helped dedicate the world's largest single wind-power project here last week, setting the Midwest on a course policymakers hope will soon propel the region past California as the U.S. leader in wind-turbine power. Another wind-power project was dedicated at Lake Benton, Minnesota.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson noted that seven of the 10 states ranked highest for wind-energy potential are in the Midwest - the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Iowa. Paradoxically, California is 17th on the list because most of its best sites for wind power have already been used and because of land-use restrictions.

The problem is the same one that has bedeviled alternative-energy advocates for decades: lowering the cost of wind power to the point where it can compete with conventional energy sources. Wind turbines have been so expensive to build and they each produce such a small amount of electricity that they have not been able to compete with the conventional sources.

However, federal energy officials say recent research breakthroughs have reduced the cost of wind energy from 40 cents per kilowatt hour in 1980 to between 4 cents and 5 cents a kilowatt hour now.

With sufficient congressional backing for additional research and development, coupled with production tax credits, the cost could be reduced to 2 1/2 cents a kilowatt hour by 2002, approximately equal to today's cost of natural-gas power plants, according to Dan Reicher, assistant energy secretary for renewable energy.

He cited a goal that Richardson announced in June of putting 10,000 megawatts of wind power on line by 2010, or enough electricity to meet the needs of 3 million households.

Energy Department officials said one key to reducing per-kilowatt costs is a proposed four-year extension of the production tax credit for wind-power development, which is part of the Republican tax-cut bill that President Bill Clinton is expected to veto for unrelated reasons.

The 259 wind turbines at the Storm Lake facility, located 130 kilometers east of the South Dakota border, generate 193 megawatts of power for the MidAmerican Energy Co. of Des Moines and Alliant Energy of Cedar Rapids. That is enough electricity to serve 72,000 households, or 192,000 people, according to officials of Enron Wind Corp. of Tehachapi, California, developer of the project.

Enron, a pioneer in wind energy, also built and is operating two facilities at Lake Benton for the Minneapolis-based Northern States Power Co., one with 138 turbines generating 104 megawatts and another with 143 turbines producing 107 megawatts.

Mike Kelly, the Iowa facility's superintendent, said that Buffalo Ridge, a barely discernible rise that runs along the watershed divide between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, was selected for the site because of the consistency of the 29-kilometers-per-hour winds and its proximity to high-voltage power transmission lines.

Enron officials said that 502,000 tons of carbon dioxide, which is associated with the greenhouse effect of global warming, and 2,600 tons of sulfur dioxide, a major cause of acid rain, would be produced if fossil fuels were used here instead of wind.

However, Enron and Energy Department officials pointed out that neither the Iowa nor the Minnesota projects were driven by public environmental demands, but by legislatures. The Minnesota legislature mandated that if Northern States Power wanted to continue storing spent nuclear fuel on its Prairie Island site, it had to provide some renewable energy such as wind power. Iowa's legislature mandated that at least 1.5 percent renewable energy be produced by each utility. After a lengthy legal battle, the requirement was upheld by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Officials said the projects bode well for rapid growth in wind energy in the Midwest. And farmers here, who collectively stand to earn more than $500,000 in annual payments and a percentage of production revenue by leasing their land to Enron, generally have been enthusiastic supporters of the project.