A fresh breeze hits Western utilities

  • Windmills in Arlington, Wyoming

    Peter McBride photo
  • Bill Young

    Peter McBride photo

You can count on the wind
in Wyomin', beer when it's foamin',
the road when it's roamin' ...

- Song by Rob McLaren and Spencer Bohren of the Gone Johnson Band

MEDICINE BOW, Wyo. - Just south of this tiny hamlet stands the world's largest windmill. Reaching almost 400 feet in the air when its blades are vertical, this remnant of President Carter's efforts to initiate a green energy program abruptly breaks the windswept landscape.

Built in 1982 by the Bureau of Reclamation, with help from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, it was to be the cutting-edge alternative to coal-powered electricity. The 4 megawatt (5,600 horsepower) wind turbine provided enough energy for 1,600 homes - until its generator failed and blades malfunctioned.

"Now it is the biggest windmill in the world that doesn't work," says Bill Young, manager of the privately owned Medicine Bow Energy Inc., from his desolate office 50 yards from this kinetic sculpture. "It was too big and too expensive for its time."

Yet Young is far from pessimistic about wind power. In places like Medicine Bow, a steady 20-mph wind blows, and the wind industry is picking up.

Today, high-tech windmills and "wind farms" dot landscapes from the Midwestern plains to Texas. Nonpolluting wind power, previously known mostly as a California phenomenon, is once again finding places like Medicine Bow desirable. Indeed, Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and the Dakotas are even called the "Saudi Arabia of wind."

"This is a fascinating time," says Andy Sulkko, a wind-source manager for Public Service Co. of Colorado. "Wind generation is growing at 35 percent - faster than coal, gas, oil, hydro and solar. It is still very young, making up less than 1 percent of our energy, but if there wasn't demand, it wouldn't be happening."

The demand comes from a heightened desire of consumers to purchase "green" energy. At the same time, technological advances have dropped the price of wind energy to 3.5 cents to 5 cents a kilowatt-hour.

This is still more expensive than coal-produced electricity, which runs 2.5 cents a kilowatt hour. But it is a big improvement over the 38 cents a kilowatt-hour that wind power cost in 1980, when the Carter administration tried to jump-start the industry.

Unlike the high-speed windmills that cover California hills or the defunct machine outside Bill Young's office in Wyoming, today's Danish-designed, sleek wind towers use more efficient, slower gears.

While generator output varies between 250 to 1,000 kilowatts, 750-kilowatt machines - enough energy to supply 300 families with electricity for a year - seem the most efficient.

Green power is hot

According to Sulkko, 16,000 customers have signed up for wind power in Colorado, some even before the windmills were installed.

Sulkko says the high customer demand has prompted the installation of at least 14 new wind machines near the Wyoming border this year. Just south of Medicine Bow, near Arlington, another 72 wind-driven turbines supply energy for Fort Collins and Denver. Much of the rapid growth can also be attributed to federal incentives for wind power.

Wind power had enjoyed a 1.8 cent subsidy for every kilowatt-hour produced, until the subsidy ended this June. Wind-power advocates say they're confident Congress will renew the credit.

While most wind clients are private residences, the trend has also begun blowing in the commercial direction. Aspen Skiing Co. recently purchased enough wind power to run a ski lift on top of the Snowmass ski resort.

In the Midwest, some farmers have begun supplementing their incomes by utilizing their "wind crop." Without interfering with their wheat or corn, farmers get paid for allowing wind machines on their land.

Some environmentalists, however, criticize wind power because moving windmill blades can kill or wound migrating birds. Wind supporters say that the newer, slower generators, together with carefully selected sites and reflective paint, are remedying these problems.

Other critics complain that the fraction of energy which wind power supplies to the nation can't diminish our consumption of nonrenewable resources. And wind, like coal, is at present another centralized power source, concentrating capital investment in one place and requiring expensive transmission lines.

Standing at the base of the world's largest windmill in Medicine Bow, Bill Young, who has worked in the wind industry since 1982, and who now manages three high-tech windmills, responds, "Any energy in the grid that comes from wind, is energy that did not come from coal, natural gas or oil."

Still, no one expects wind power to replace coal, hydropower or other base-load plants.

"We're energy-mongers. We're addicted to convenience, and energy brings it to us," says Dave Church, a wind marketer for Holy Cross Energy in western Colorado. "But in some 30 years," he adds, "this is the most exciting the energy business has ever been."

The American Wind Energy Association agrees. Installations of new and repowered wind projects will total 2,500 megawatts by the end of 1999, topping an investment of $1 billion.

"The new surge in installed capacity reflects growing acceptance of wind across the country," an association spokesman says, with new wind plants going up in 12 Midwestern and Western states.

The Department of Energy says it would like utility companies to double their wind-generation capacity to 5,000 MW by 2005, then double it again to 10,000 MW by 2010. By 2020, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson wants wind power to increase to 5 percent of our total supply.

Former HCN intern Peter McBride is a freelance reporter and photographer in Old Snowmass, Colorado.

You can contact ...

* American Wind Energy Association, www.awea.org (202/383-2500);

* Randy Udall at CORE, 970/544-9808;

* or see the U.S. Department of Energy Web site, www.eren.doe.gov/windpoweringamerica.

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