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Midwest farmers are tilting at wind turbines

As they produce power, the generators deliver money to landowners.

December 25, 2007|Tim Jones | Chicago Tribune

BAD AXE, MICH. — At a time when most people choose to avoid the harsh winter winds that roar past corn stubble and whip up billowing dust clouds over table-flat fields, farmers in Michigan's Thumb now talk about catching the wind and all the money that comes with it.

Michigan's first commercial wind farm -- a collection of 32 towering turbines that conjure visions of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" -- is scheduled to begin operating New Year's Day, spurring for some a near-gold-rush mentality in this sparsely populated area.

Thousands of dollars in a guaranteed annual harvest come with each windmill placed on a farmer's land, and that lure has gone a long way toward interrupting the horizontal sameness of vast corn and bean fields.

"I can't wait 'til they get going," said Bob Webber, who turned over easement rights on a portion of his property in Huron County for a proposed second wind farm, with 42 turbines.

For generations, the tallest structures in the agricultural Midwest have been grain elevators. But the rapid growth of the wind-power industry is altering the landscape in states such as Iowa, which has about 960 turbines, and Minnesota, which has about 860, according to the trade group American Wind Energy Assn. Iowa and Minnesota rank third and fifth, respectively, in annual electrical power generated by wind. A utility executive in Detroit said he envisioned the tip of Michigan's Thumb planted with more than 1,000 turbines

Because of consistent wind speeds that buffet the Thumb, which juts into Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay, "Huron County is the sweet spot," said Trevor Lauer, vice president of retail marketing for DTE Energy Co. The Detroit-based electric utility has bought easement rights to 30,000 acres in the county, taking advantage of good winds and what appears to be a path of least citizen resistance.

"Agricultural land and wind play together very well," said Lauer, adding that wind power has "reached a tipping point. It's no longer a question of if but when, and to what extent."

Last month TPI Composites announced it would open a factory in Newton, Iowa, to build wind turbine blades. That will be the fifth turbine-parts manufacturer that has set up operations in Iowa in the last two years, driven by a soaring national demand for turbines. During the first nine months of this year, Texas, the nation's leader in wind energy, installed nearly 600 turbines. An additional 136 were scheduled to be installed by the end of the year.

"The world of wind has been substantially reshaped in the past three or four years," said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Assn. "There's a rush of capital into it."

There is a wide chasm separating the dream of large-scale alternative power and the actual implementation of it. Energy transmission problems and political obstacles -- resistance from people who find the turbines ugly or a Cuisinart-like threat to birds -- loom large. Wind power accounts for a mere 1% of energy generation nationwide. And turbine proposals in resort and seaside areas such as Cape Cod, Mass., have provoked loud protests. Federal tax credits are a vital lifeline to the industry.

But the investment in wind power is taking root in sparsely populated areas of the Midwest and across the country, due in large part to state mandates forcing utilities to generate a certain percentage of their electricity -- say, 10% to 20% -- from alternative sources.

At least two other wind power ventures are under consideration in Huron County.

Michigan's entry into wind power is notable because, by virtue of its long marriage to the automobile industry, it is perhaps the ultimate fossil-fuel state.

State officials say the wind farm due to open in a few days will save Michigan residents $4 billion on power generation over 20 years.

"This makes a statement very clearly that we think [energy] renewables will be part of the future," said Craig Borr, executive vice president at Wolverine.

The more immediate beneficiaries of the gradual move to wind power are people like Bob Krohn, who owns about 1,500 acres near the town of Pigeon. Krohn spends most of his early mornings with longtime friends, downing coffee at a round Formica table at the Dutch Kettle, a keep-your-hat-on restaurant where the most expensive item on the menu is $5.85.

The three turbines on Krohn's property will earn him $18,000 to $30,000 a year, he said.

"We're so used to seeing them now," said Krohn, whose turbines are among the 32 in the $90-million project developed by John Deere Wind Energy.

On a recent frigid night in Bad Axe, DTE officials invited 250 people to a hotel for a prime-rib and open-bar schmooze designed to sell the virtues of wind power.

In Huron County, where the median family income of $42,400 is 15% below the national average, the utility is preaching to a sizable choir.

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