Wind farms’ income still up in the air

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Farmers looking to earn additional income by harnessing the breeze may want to think again before throwing caution to the wind.

Farmers in some Midwest and western states have made money selling electricity generated by windmills and wind turbines. The so-called “wind farms” are touted as clean, renewable energy alternatives to coal-fired and nuclear power plants.

But economic and meteorological realities make wind farms less feasible in Indiana and Ohio, says Purdue University agricultural economist Stephen Lovejoy.

“In Indiana, it would take thousands of farms and tens of thousands of actual windmills, in order to generate only 5 percent to 10 percent of the electricity we utilize,” he said.

“What you want is a place that is very windy. That’s why people in places like North Dakota and certain parts of Wyoming around Laramie are looking at this, where the wind blows like crazy, it seems, for 350 days a year.”

Early power source. Windmills have been a part of the American landscape since the westward expansion, when the metal and wooden structures were used to pump water for farms and ranches.

By the turn of the 20th century, farmers generated their own electricity with small wind systems. Those systems fell out of favor as grid power was extended to rural areas in the 1930s.

Modern era. The modern era of wind energy began in 1978, with the adoption of federal laws allowing consumers to erect wind generators and sell excess power to electric utilities.

Wind turbines – highly engineered, three-bladed generators connected to towers 30 feet tall or taller – were introduced in the early 1980s.

Wind farms consist of multiple turbines, often situated in rows along pastures or cropland. A typical turbine generates about 1 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually, if sustained winds average 30 mph, Lovejoy said.

“In Wisconsin where several wind farms are located, a wind farm with 17 windmills generated 22.5 million kilowatt hours in a 12-month period,” he said.

“A Hoosier wind farm generating more than 20 million kilowatt hours per year sounds impressive until compared with the total sales of electricity in Indiana. In 1999, utilities in Indiana sold more than 142,000 gigawatt hours of electricity. That’s 142 billion kilowatt hours.”

Not windy enough. Indiana and Ohio’s average wind speeds present a problem for would-be wind farmers.

“If you take the state as a whole, Indiana’s average winds are about 9 mph,” said Kenneth Scheeringa, state climatologist at Purdue. “We just don’t have consistently strong enough winds to run turbines.”

Ohio’s average winds are even less.

Bird killer. Although wind energy is clean, the technology has environmental down sides, Lovejoy said.

“Are you willing to put up with noise? You’ve got to remember that if you’ve got several dozen turbine rotors going around in the wind, they make noise,” he said.

“They’re also hazardous to birds. Certainly you wouldn’t want windmills if you’re right in the flyway of migratory waterfowl.” Installation and operating costs can be expensive, as well.

“The engineering tolerances of these machines are so close that just a few bird strikes or extra-heavy winds can throw them out of alignment, reducing the efficiency of the wind-to-energy ratio considerably,” Lovejoy said. “So there’s a fair amount of maintenance involved.”

Right conditions. While wind farming may not be practical for most farmers, it could be worthwhile for some.

“An ideal situation would be a farm that had marginal crop land, where average yields were substantially below the state averages, and it was windy,” Lovejoy said.

“I wouldn’t say a farmer shouldn’t even consider wind farming, but I would advise him to look very carefully before signing a contract with somebody to supply them a dozen windmills.”

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