The wind blows constantly across the Western plains, as anyone who’s driven north from Denver and across Wyoming can attest. You feel your car needs alignment until you see the tumbleweeds bustling towards Kansas City. That’s why America’s heartland has been called the Saudi Arabia of wind, and that’s why we should be looking closely at expanding efforts to drill for electricity in that big sky, not in the ground.
The wind that famously drove pioneers crazy still blows straight across the upper Green River basin, where antelope populations are coming into conflict with natural gas drillers. They’re looking underground for methane to generate relatively clean electricity. But wind power is cleaner, and leaves the antelope alone.
The wind blows across North Dakota, a state in which declining population belies the fact that, separated from the nation, it would be the world’s third largest nuclear power. North Dakota’s economy isn’t exactly cranking these days, with big mechanized farms covering most of the state and an aging population. (You’ll often find summer sausages next to the checkout stand there, not Bic lighters and People magazine. If you’re 80 and drive a Lincoln Continental, the sausage is probably more appealing.) Wind power generation could help farmers make more cash but keep farming, and provide a new economy in the West that taps the mechanical expertise of ex-agricultural workers and gas drillers.
The wind blows across cattle range in Nebraska, where family ranchers often find it hard to go beyond break-even business. Ranchers in Weld County, Colo., have put up turbines to bring in a little more cash: The cows graze around them.
There is another big reason to make the West a wind power Mecca — a big and growing market for renewable power. On Jan. 11, the No. 1 natural foods grocery chain Whole Foods stunned the business world by purchasing renewable wind energy credits equal to all the electricity the company uses in its 180 stores. That’s about 458 million kilowatt-hours, or enough to power 54,000 homes all year. Those credits subsidize renewable electricity generation. As more businesses and individuals buy credits, the demand will cause more wind to be generated.
On the same day that Whole Foods made its announcement, FedEx Kinkos announced it would expand wind energy purchases to cover 14 percent of its U.S. electricity needs. The list of big, smart businesses buying wind power goes on: Starbucks, Safeway, Johnson and Johnson, Staples. Each is profitable, well managed and the leader in its business sector. Unless the top corporate minds in the country are wrong, wind power makes sense.
Some Western states get it, and have passed "renewable portfolio standards" that require a certain amount of renewably generated power by a given date. Texas, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, California and most recently, Colorado, have such standards.
Still, some "free market" politicians oppose renewable energy targets because they see them as mandates. But that presumes wind energy and other renewables have been competing on a level playing field. Not even close. The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense has highlighted 16 federal subsidies that give coal, oil, and natural gas over $5 billion per year. And the new federal energy bill, which New York Times columnist Tom Friedman calls "the sum of all lobbies," is chock full of fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies. A renewable portfolio standard simply levels the playing field. At least, that’s what George Bush thought when he enacted a similar standard in Texas.
Wind isn’t the be-all of energy solutions. After all, the wind only blows about a third of the time, a fact that has probably spared many plains-dwellers from insanity. Wind is also inextricably linked to its opposite: fossil-fuel generated electricity, which is required to cover a windmill’s downtime. But wind is a part of the solution, and it’s an approach to energy supply that taps a long Western tradition of using our bountiful resources to benefit humanity. Used to looking down at coal seams, ore deposits, aquifers and forests for prosperity and hope, Westerners don’t need to change their approach, just the angle of their head.