"I get phone calls every day from landowners who say, ‘I've got three sections of land - come build a wind farm,'" says David Herrick '77, executive director of wind development for NextEra Energy Resources, builder and owner of the world's two largest wind farms.
The phone calls, which often come from hard-pressed farmers and ranchers looking for supplemental income, are a sign that wind power has arrived. Vast wind-turbine farms are an increasingly common sight in parts of the nation, especially along the nation's wind alley - a block of 12 Midwestern and Great Plains' states where the wind blows hardest and longest.
Herrick's company built the world's first- and second-largest wind farms in west Texas, an area with few people and a lot of wind. 0They are the 735.5 megawatt Horse Hollow and the 662.5 MW Capricorn Ridge Wind Projects. (A megawatt is one million watts.)
The larger of the two, Horse Hollow, has 421 turbines stretching 33 miles from end to end across more than 60,000 acres. The cost was approximately $1 billion. Herrick personally attended to many of the myriad details required to bring the project online. He selected wind turbine sites and negotiated lease agreements with landowners, often at their kitchen tables. He had environmental studies done. He worked with government officials to obtain permits. And he lined up customers for the project's power.
Wind power's success is driven both by concerns over global warming and from the fact that it comes with a built-in advantage. "The fuel is free," says Herrick. Last year, the wind-power industry installed a record 8,500 megawatts of new generating capacity - enough to provide electricity to over two million homes.
Herrick, who holds a B.S. in civil & environmental engineering, was introduced to alternative power while a student at Clarkson, where he studied hydroelectric power, his field for years after he graduated. "I liked the idea that you were generating power from a natural source - not having to burn something," he says. "That seems to be more of a mainstream view now."
In 1996, he switched to wind power when the industry was an also-ran in the mix of power sources. His timing was very good. Global warming was emerging as an issue - in the years since, evidence of worldwide climate change caused by fossil-fuel usage has mounted. At the same time, there has been a growing realization that the United States has the potential to become the Saudi Arabia of wind. For example, the Dakotas, Texas, Kansas, and Montana each have the potential to produce more than one billion kilowatt-hours a year from wind.
Nationally, the wind could produce more than 10 billion kilowatt-hours of wind annually - more than twice the current electricity use, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Even New York state could play a role. It ranks 15th among the states in potential wind energy power. There is already a wind farm up and running near Herrick's childhood home outside of Syracuse.
As it is, wind is beginning to emerge as a first-tier player in the U.S. energy system. Last year, for example, wind-power projects accounted for 42 percent of the nation's new power-producing capacity - second behind new natural gas-fired plants. But because fossil fuel and nuclear plants make up the great bulk of the nation's total installed electric system, wind power still produces just one percent of the nation's electricity supply.
The percentage of power from wind should rise quickly if the industry continues to grow, however. Denmark and Germany offer a glimpse of what's possible. Denmark gets over 20 percent of its power from wind energy, Germany roughly seven percent.
In the meantime, wind power faces difficulties. For instance, it's cheaper to burn fossil fuels because wind turbines and related infrastructure are expensive. But a strict cost comparison may not tell the whole story. "If you factor in the cost from cleaning up the environment and from global warming, we expect the costs of wind power (and other power sources) will be much closer to each other," Herrick says.
The country's limited transmission system is another hindrance. The wind tends to blow hardest in isolated, sparsely populated regions where transmission lines are insufficient. The power grid in those areas was designed to move small amounts of electricity from power plants out to rural areas, explains Herrick. "It wasn't designed to take hundreds or thousands of megawatts from wind farms and move it in the other direction. The panhandle of Texas is a perfect example. There's lots of wind, but the transmission system is weak. There's no way to get the power out."
Efforts are underway to relieve the bottleneck. Until then, wind still has plenty of factors in its favor. A number of states require utilities to include renewable energy in their power mix. President Obama is on record as favoring a big expansion of the nation's renewable-energy capacity. And there's no shortage of landowners who want to see a wind farm on their property. This makes it easy for wind-farm developers to acquire the vast tracts they need.
Farmers and ranchers reap a bonanza by going along. On average, the turbines take up only about three percent of their land - leaving them free to farm or graze cattle. But the income from allowing wind turbines on their property can double their net income, according to estimates from the Wind Energy Association.
Even so, wind-power developers such as NextEra don't rush out and throw up new wind farms willy-nilly. First, the company has to determine whether there is enough wind. "If you built wind farms in places that the wind doesn't blow very much, you would have to charge a lot more per kilowatt hour to justify building a plant," Herrick says.
NextEra uses computer models to determine where the best winds are likely to be found. Then it puts up meteorological towers to conduct onsite measurements. "We like to leave them in place for at least a year," Herrick says. "Once we get a good feeling for the viability of a site, then we would go in and do land acquisition, permitting, transmission interconnection, and other preparations, including lining up customers for the power." Once the preliminaries are complete, it only takes six to nine months to build the wind farm, as opposed to years for conventional power plants.
Of course, the wind isn't the only solution to the nation's energy problems. "You will never have 100 percent renewable energy - at least not from wind," Herrick says. "There are times when the wind doesn't blow."
That said, it's also true that the wind-energy industry is poised to boom as pressures mount to control global warming. "When I started in 1996, it was a niche business," he says. "It's now become a full-blown legitimate industry. Renewables will become a bigger and bigger part of the energy mix as we go forward. How big? It's too early to tell."