The price of energy remains one of the most important issues facing agriculture, and, indeed, all American businesses and consumers. Energy, whether it’s used for transportation, heating or running a computer, is the most necessary ingredient in today’s economy. That’s why the rising crude oil prices are such a concern. Fuel from crude oil is 20 percent higher this year than last, and that cost is driving the cost of all American goods and services higher.
The spike in oil prices has also spurred renewed interest in alternative sources of energy. And much of that focus has been on energy sources that are more environmentally friendly. Ethanol production, for instance, was a popular issue in several Midwestern battleground states during the recent presidential campaign because using ethanol provides dual benefits. It reduces oil consumption and utilizes one of America’s most plentiful products — corn. Solar energy has also gained in popularity, and the U.S. government encourages its use by providing tax incentives for businesses and consumers.
But with current technology, the most promising alternative energy source is wind power. Unfortunately, it’s also the most controversial. Not because anyone disagrees with the idea of capturing the wind and turning it into electricity, but because the giant apparatus necessary to harvest the wind is, well, just plain ugly. Most people’s attitude is the proverbial “not in my back yard.”
Wind energy is already big business in America. As of January 2004, 16 billion kilowatt hours were being generated each year by wind — that’s as much energy as 1.6 million American households would use. The U.S. Department of Energy has a goal of obtaining 5 percent of U.S. electricity from wind by the year 2020. The goal of the wind-energy industry is to supply 100 gigawatts (about 10 percent of the projected national capacity) by 2020. For several years running, wind energy is the fastest-growing utility-scale energy resource.
In Kansas, however, wind energy may also be the fastest-growing controversy. Kansas is home to the Flint Hills, a pristine area that contains two-thirds of the last remaining 3 percent of America’s native grasslands. And a lot of folks whose families have owned this land since the pioneer days don’t want to see wind turbines dotted across the prairie.
Recently, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius asked wind-energy developers to refrain from planning any projects in a broad area of the Flint Hills so that the tallgrass prairie could be protected. It was only a request, but it will likely put a hold on any developments until at least next summer. That delay means developers can’t take advantage of a temporary federal tax cut.
The controversy over wind development will continue as long as developers have an economic incentive to harvest the wind. Developing a solution agreeable to both sides of the wind-development controversy is unlikely in the Flint Hills, or many other regions of the American west.
The wind controversy, however, is not limited to the flyover states of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West. Several offshore wind developments have been proposed along the coastline of Cape Cod. Local residents and officials, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, oppose the offshore development. Although they would be anchored six miles out to sea, opponents claim the turbines would spoil the view, impede navigation and threaten wildlife.
The answer to the inland and near-offshore critics is to build deep-water platforms that can be placed far out to sea — away from neighbors. Such development is not economically feasible today, but experts believe a workable system is less than a decade away. A lot of opponents in Kansas and other states believe it couldn’t come soon enough.