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November 8, 2001

Economist: Wind farm profits wouldn't be a breeze for Hoosiers

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Farmers looking to earn additional income by harnessing the breeze may want to think again before throwing caution to the wind, warns a Purdue University agricultural economist.


Photo caption below

Stephen Lovejoy, a Purdue Extension Service specialist in environmental and agricultural policy, said farmers in some Midwest and western states have made money selling electricity generated by windmills and wind turbines. The so-called "wind farms" are touted as clean, renewable energy alternatives to coal-fired and nuclear power plants.

But economic and meteorological realities make wind farms less feasible in Indiana, Lovejoy said.

"In Indiana, it would take thousands of farms and tens of thousands of actual windmills, in order to generate only 5 percent to 10 percent of the electricity we utilize," he said.

"I don't know if we have an ideal location for wind farms in Indiana. What you want is a place that is very windy. That's why people in places like North Dakota and certain parts of Wyoming around Laramie are looking at this, where the wind blows like crazy, it seems, for 350 days a year."

Lovejoy has studied wind farming and the promise it holds for Hoosier agriculture. He's written an article on the subject, titled "Windpower: 'Green' Source of Electricity or Just a Lot of Air?" The article appears in the current issue of the Purdue Agricultural Economics Report. The publication is available online.

Windmills have been a part of the American landscape since the westward expansion, when the metal and wooden structures were used to pump water for farms and ranches. By the turn of the 20th century, farmers generated their own electricity with small wind systems. Those systems fell out of favor as grid power was extended to rural areas in the 1930s.

The modern era of wind energy began in 1978 with the adoption of federal laws allowing consumers to erect wind generators and sell excess power to electric utilities. Wind turbines – highly engineered, three-bladed generators connected to towers 30 feet tall or taller – were introduced in the early 1980s.

Wind farms consist of multiple turbines, often situated in rows along pastures or cropland. A typical turbine generates about 1 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually if sustained winds average 30 mph, Lovejoy said.

"In Wisconsin, where several wind farms are located, a wind farm with 17 windmills generated 22.5 million kilowatt hours in a 12-month period," he said. "A Hoosier wind farm generating more than 20 million kilowatt hours per year sounds impressive until compared with the total sales of electricity in Indiana. In 1999, utilities in Indiana sold more than 142,000 gigawatt hours of electricity. That's 142 billion kilowatt hours."

Indiana's average wind speeds present a problem for would-be wind farmers.

"If you take the state as a whole, Indiana's average winds are about 9 mph," said Kenneth Scheeringa, acting state climatologist at Purdue. "We just don't have consistently strong enough winds to run turbines."

Winds blow faster in the northern two-thirds of Indiana than the southern third, Scheeringa said. Wind speeds range from a yearly average of 10.1 mph in South Bend to 7.93 mph in Evansville.

Although wind energy is clean, the technology has environmental downsides, Lovejoy said.

"Are you willing to put up with noise? You've got to remember that if you've got several dozen turbine rotors going around in the wind, they make noise," he said. "They're also hazardous to birds. Certainly you wouldn't want windmills if you're right in the flyway of migratory waterfowl."

Installation and operating costs can be expensive, as well, Lovejoy said.

"The engineering tolerances of these machines are so close that just a few bird strikes or extra-heavy winds can throw them out of alignment, reducing the efficiency of the wind-to-energy ratio considerably," he said. "So there's a fair amount of maintenance involved."

While wind farming may not be practical for most Indiana farmers, it could be worthwhile for some.

"An ideal situation would be a farm that had marginal crop land, where average yields were substantially below the state averages, and it was windy," Lovejoy said. "We might look at some areas with very sandy soils that aren't quite as good for cropping, and where there are concerns about livestock because of the application of waste. The northwest part of the state has some of those combinations. Unfortunately, part of that area is in the migratory flyway.

"I wouldn't say a farmer shouldn't even consider wind farming, but I would advise them to look very carefully before signing a contract with somebody to supply them a dozen windmills."

Writer: Steve Leer, (765) 494-8415; sleer@aes.purdue.edu

Sources: Stephen Lovejoy, (765) 494-4245; lovejoy@agecon.purdue.edu

Kenneth Scheeringa, (765) 494-8105; kens@purdue.edu

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes, bforbes@aes.purdue.edu; http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/AgComm/public/agnews/

Related Web sites:

Purdue Applied Meteorology Group home page
U.S. Department of Energy Wind Energy Program home page

PHOTO CAPTION:
Wind turbines generate electricity at the Tehachapi Wind Farm, located about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. The 5,000 turbines produce enough power each year to meet the needs of 350,000 people. (U.S. Department of Energy photo.)

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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