Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Wind Power

Dateline: 10:38 am September 17, 2008 Filed under:

In a sign of the times, some of my friends that used to develop condos are now developing wind farms. The condo market may have dried up, but the wind still blows. And indeed it blows, especially here in Minneapolis, so much so that one particularly windy day last sping, one of those days that would be pleasant but for the wind, I signed our household up to receive a portion of our electricity from the wind.

Those friends of mine, the former condo developers, recently put on a presentation about wind power for our local Young Leaders Group of the Urban Land Institute. They work for National Wind, a Minneapolis-based developer of “community-based” wind farms. Community-based means National Wind develops the wind farm, but the local land owners and community shares the revenue generated through the sale of energy to the utility company.

National Wind develops wind farms in Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Iowa and is pursuing projects in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. They look for windy areas, and typical wind farms include perhaps 100 turbines and encompass thousands of acres involving leases with vast numbers of land owners. A single turbine takes an average of one acre out of production, so to large landowners it is similar to leasing rooftop space for a billboard in the city – simply a source of additional revenue.

Electricity is measured in Megawatt Hours (MwH), and one MwH can power 300 homes, for example. One turbine can generate up to 2.5 MwH, and a wind farm can power thousands of homes. Wind energy already generates 22,000 MwH nationwide, approximately 1% of our electricity needs, but is growing by 4,000 MwH per year. However, demand is growing annually by 12,000 MwH, so there is a lot of catching up to do. It is possible that by 2030 as much as 20% of our nation’s electricity will come from wind.

Of course, conservation measures and legislation can greatly affect these outcomes. The reason for the recent surge in wind power development stems from a national tax credit that must be renewed by congress this year to continue. As well, many states require a percentage of electricity to come from renewables. Wind energy is not free, nor even cheap, but it also has precious few external costs related to health or the environment, costs that aren’t always foreseen or even linked. So public support and government incentives will continue to be necessary.

As with everything, geography matters. Average wind speed varies by location, as does land availability and transmission capability. The windiest locations are generally the great plains. That is one of the reasons Minnesota and Texas are among the leaders in wind power generation (Texas is first, California second, and Minnesota third). The southeast states, however, are much less windy and won’t see much of their electricity come from wind. But the great plains are also sparsely populated, and transmission capacity must be increased for new wind farms to be connected to major metro areas.

There are economic benefits as well. Not all wind power developers operate using the community-based model like National Wind, but sharing the revenue helps rural communities economically. There are also jobs. Most turbines are currently made overseas, and I have seen them offloaded from ships on to trucks at Duluth Harbor to be taken to their final destination on a windswept hilltop somewhere west of Minneapolis. But due to demand, manufacturers are building plants here in the United States, thus generating additional jobs and tax revenue.

Wind power is certainly a part of our urban future, as are a variety of energy options. So before we drill for more oil, we need to first find ways to conserve energy through sensible urban planning, increased transit investment and energy efficient buildings. Then we must ensure that congress reauthorizes the tax credit, and that states continue to provide incentives for wind power.

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