Wind power in the West gains speed

  • BLOW BY BLOW: Writer Alex Markels says the Great Plains are poised to be a wind-energy leader

    (photo courtesy Alex Markels)

While energy companies scour the West for oil and gas, another, greener power source is on the rise: wind. Long regarded as expensive and unreliable, wind energy is now drawing the attention - and investment - of even the most conventional energy companies. In the last few years, technological advances and public policy have made wind power the fastest growing power source in the nation, and the Great Plains are, by all estimations, the Saudi Arabia of Wind.

Minturn, Colo., writer Alex Markels covered the wind revolution recently for Mother Jones magazine. In a recent interview with Radio High Country News, Markels told the story of visiting a giant wind farm in West Texas. He said the Texas wind boom was facilitated, ironically, by then Gov. George W. Bush, who signed a law requiring utilities to obtain 8 percent of their energy supply from renewables such as wind and solar. It was also helped along by federal subsidies.

According to Markels, this combination of carrot and stick will drive a growing wind-generation industry in the West. Already, a handful of states are considering adding a renewable-energy requirement to their electricity portfolio (see story page 7). Here's Alex Markels, in his own words:

"Like a giant Christo sculpture blowing in the breeze."

"It's a remarkable sight, driving across the desert and seeing these towers, which are each the size of the Statue of Liberty, with wingspans a bit wider than a Boeing 747. And there were about 110 of these towers stretching across the mesa."

Not your old Dutch windmill

"The kinds of windmills that were generating electricity in the last 20 years were 15 times less powerful than the ones they use today. Now, the largest wind turbines generate upwards of a megawatt and a half each.

"They take wind that may be gusting from 25 to 40 miles per hour and convert it into a constant energy source. That's mostly done through computers that monitor how fast the wind is blowing and tilt the blades so that the turbines spin at a constant velocity. It's a very gentle motion and rather beautiful motion that spins the rotors around every two seconds or so."

Speculation on the wind

"The people who are going after wind developments are very much like the old fashioned wildcatters. But instead of putting a hole in the ground, they're putting up a weather tower and measuring how fast the wind is blowing."

Wind power's greatest myths

"The science that I've read clearly shows that this does not interrupt (bird) migration patterns and that the blades simply spin too slowly to have a measurable impact on birds and other flying things.

"In the hills of the Midland country in England, residents were coming up with all sorts of reasons why wind turbines were an environmental problem. And there was a rumor going around at one point that wind turbines, which do make some noise, caused irritable bowel syndrome."

The rub

"While the Great Plains might be the Saudi Arabia of wind, electricity is not easily transported from South Dakota to, say, Chicago. There is enormous potential, though * we're starting to see a nascent industry in fuel cells, and there are many people who believe that once we figure this out, wind power can be collected, stored and transported."

On subsidies

"I don't think that we should be embarrassed about the fact that wind cannot entirely hold its own if you're just matching it dollar for dollar against conventional sources. We have yet to find ways to account for the costs that conventional energy sources have in terms of pollution. And the truth of the matter is that most of the big industries in the United States - whether it be railroads, electricity, water - have been subsidized."

A Radio High Country News interview with Alex Markels is available on CD. Contact [email protected], or call 800/905-1155.

High Country News Classifieds