As of January 2004, 16 billion kilowatt hours were being generated each year by wind — that’s as much electricity 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. For several years running, wind energy is the fastest-growing utility-scale energy resource.
Wind energy meets agriculture
As more wind-energy developments are built, more land is needed and more landowners find themselves being approached by interested wind-energy devel-opers. Philip Ellis, who ranches near Chugwater, Wyo., is one of them; he has leased some of his property to a wind-development company, though no turbines have yet been built. Mr. Ellis, who is also president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, thinks it can be a win-win situation, but he does offer a caution to other ranchers.
“Landowners need to look at it very carefully,” he says. “They should retain an attorney familiar with, or willing to become familiar with, wind energy.” The leases are complex, of course, and can be structured in many different ways. “I have suggested to fellow ranchers to take the time to learn about what’s involved, work though the issues: access, impact, compensation, responsibility and liability, reclamation.”
By their nature, the leases favor the wind companies, says Richard Porter, who ranches near Reading, Kan. When a developer approaches a landowner, the developer wants the resulting lease to be appealing to the wind-energy company he hopes to sell it to. So, having leases with as much latitude as possible is good for them, less so for the landowner.
“Most of the leases are very problematic for landowners,” Mr. Porter says. “They don’t realize the property rights they’re giving up. The person you’re signing the lease with is probably not the same person you’ll be dealing with five or 10 years down the road. A vast majority of landowners will sign the original document, not realizing all the bad things that can occur.”
These could include extra acreages needed for power lines and road easements, restrictions on buildings being constructed and requirements on trees not being allowed to grow. “The company may end up putting the windmills a couple of properties away and running power lines and roads across your property. Of course, many of the wind developers will try to get along with the landowners, but once there’s a signed lease, they have most of the negotiating cards,” Mr. Porter says.
Before becoming involved, Mr. Ellis found out about others’ experiences. “I talked to several ranchers in Wyoming and in west Texas, where there’s quite a bit of development,” he says. “I couldn’t see any downsides as far as a range operation. Nobody seemed to think they were bothering the ranch operation.” In Wyoming, there is a great deal of interest in wind development; he is not aware of any controversy.
But while there is much interest, there are few actual developments as of yet in the state. As more get built, the visual aspect of the turbines may become more contentious. “We may one day wonder how many turbines are enough,” Mr. Ellis says. “It will have to be thought through in Wyoming. And every landowner will have to deal with whether he wants to see turbines on his land.” Whether his neighbors want to see them may also be a question, but if turbines go up on his property, the land is so remote that they won’t even be visible from neighboring ranches.
There is great potential for wind development in Wyoming; in fact, its abundant wind, together with that of the Dakotas and Montana, could theoretically supply the whole country with electricity. That won’t happen in actuality — wind can’t be the dominant resource because, in large part, it doesn’t blow all the time. “Wind is not ‘dispatchable’ — you can’t turn it on and off,” says Larry Flowers, team leader at the National Wind Technology Center in Boulder, Colo. “Twenty-four hours ahead of time, it’s uncertain if the wind will be blowing, so you have to keep other things running.”
And that, according to rancher Rose Bacon, is just part of the problem with wind energy. If a coal plant has to idle during the times when the wind is blowing and creating electricity so that it’s ready to get back up to speed when the wind stops — that’s when most emissions from the coal plant occur, because the plants are not intended to idle.
Ms. Bacon, who ranches near Council Grove, Kan., served on the Kansas governor’s wind-energy task force, as did Mr. Porter. In the Kansas Flint Hills, there is great interest in wind development, and great controversy, as well. “You think there’s controversy about gay marriage and abortion, you haven’t seen anything,” Mr. Porter says. “People are firmly entrenched on both sides.”
The task force started with two missions: to preserve the pristine areas of Kansas and to have a rapid development of wind energy. “The bottom line was we ended up with two reports. There was no way to pull them together,” Mr. Porter says. They agreed that the Flint Hills was a pristine area of Kansas — and contained two-thirds of the last remaining 3 percent of the wild native grasslands in this country. But they could not agree on questions such as: Will wind towers harm them? “The majority of the task force ended up slightly against wind development in the Flint Hills,” Mr. Porter says. (The final report can be read at www.kansasenergy.org/sercc_wptf.htm. The appendices include advice for landowners looking at wind-energy leases.)
Ms. Bacon didn’t start out opposing wind energy. “Initially, my perception of wind energy was much like anyone else’s — what could be wrong with it?” she says. But as she learned more, her view changed. “If they lived up to the promises of developers, then OK. But they don’t,” she says. Their top efficiency is 40 to 44 percent, but 20 to 25 percent is more realistic. They’re not economical, and that’s not just my opinion. They’re not reliable in producing energy. Peak loads are morning and night, when there’s no wind, and hot days and cold nights that are still. And they do not replace a single conventional plant.”
Moreover, Ms. Bacon came to the conclusion that the Flint Hills is the wrong place for wind-energy development; parties agreeing with her position include the Kansas Natural Resource Council, the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, Kansas Scenic Byways, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Federation and the governor of Kansas, to name a few.
She points out that the turbines require 30-foot-deep cement foundations and 400-by-400-foot areas disturbed during construction and evacuation. All of this activity would change how riparian areas function and cause soil compaction and permanent disruption of the prairie. “When they remove the turbine, they take the foundation down 4 feet, throw some gravel and dirt down, and say it’s as good as new,” Ms. Bacon says. “It would be several hundred to a thousand years before you’d have any semblance of a native environment.” And, she says, one wind complex of 80 to 100 turbines takes up several thousand acres, once you take into account areas disrupted by construction and roads.
With no turbines yet built, the controversy has been harmful. “It’s one of the most destructive and divisive things to come into our community. Many rifts will not be healed, whether the developments happen or not.” There’s been an accompanying decrease in land values already, evidenced by sales falling through when buyers found that leases had been signed for neighboring land.
Ms. Bacon believes the lessons are applicable elsewhere. “What we have learned is transferable to any place in the country where land is valued not only for what it is and produces — a very real value — but where that value can be doubled or tripled for the beauty, the sense of wholeness it has, for the public or the people who hold title to that land,” she says.
Private land preferred
The majority of the time, Mr. Flowers says, wind-development sites end up on private land, partly because with federal and state land offices, the necessary procedures and processes become an impediment. “The federal government is trying to make it less onerous, but it’s still not as easy as working with private landowners,” he says. “Time and uncertainty are the bane of any developer.”
And that can be good for agriculture. “We believe wind energy is a huge opportunity for economic development for agriculture,” Mr. Flowers says. The industry is making many efforts to educate both consumers and the agricultural community about the benefits.
For the agricultural community, there may be financial opportunities in it. Each acre used in a wind-development project will bring in $2,500 to $4,000 per year; typically, a project’s lifespan is 20 or more years. “It’s a revenue stream they don’t have to do anything for. There’s sensitivity about siting the turbines responsibly. The technology is quiet, reliable and non-intrusive,” Mr. Flowers says. Wind plants take one acre out of production per megawatt of electricity produced.
As a utility, wind energy has the benefit of fuel that is free, and the cost of making electricity from it, which has been its Achilles heel, continues to improve. It’s now the lowest cost of any new bulk energy source; it’s cheaper to build a wind farm than a new gas plant or new coal plant. If it is being used as an addition to existing energy sources in a market, it does still cost from a fraction of a cent to a couple of cents more per kilowatt hour.
But then nothing is without flaws when it comes to creating power — there still is no perfect method. “You’ve got to decide what you want for your electricity,” Mr. Flowers says. “You’ve got to choose something.” Those choices rarely turn out to be simple.