CHICAGO — There's a hot new crop popping up amid the corn rows and wheat fields of America's heartland: It's called wind power.
From North Dakota to Texas, hundreds of new high-tech windmills dot the landscape, often standing more than 10 stories tall, with their 80-foot-long propeller-like blades twirling high above the crops below.
Farmers and other landowners are getting paid big money to put these kinetic sculptures on their land. And although it still represents a tiny fraction of the nation's energy, consumers are signing up in record numbers to buy the nonpolluting power.
Indeed, insiders call the Midwest the Saudi Arabia of wind. And in an event big with symbolism, the first wind-turbine production plant outside California officially opened in Champaign, Ill., last week.
After years on the energy fringes as a mostly California-based phenomenon, wind energy is picking up steam. By this July, the country's wind-power capacity will have jumped 50 percent in 18 months. The trend is fueled by everything from energy deregulation to big technological advances in turbines to growing consumer desire for "green" energy.
"There's now a viable market for wind power," says Glenn Reed of Xenergy, an energy consulting firm in Burlington, Mass. "Whether it will be a large market - and whether companies can make money in it - remains to be seen."
Windmills are already making money for farmers like Roger Kadolph, who tills nearly 1,000 gently-rolling acres near the northern Iowa town of Clear Lake.
One blustery day last year, as he was driving his combine through his soybeans, he got a call from a Florida-based power company on his two-way radio. "We hear you've got some wind out in your part of the country," yelled the voice at the other end, as 50-m.p.h. winds howled outside his combine's cab. "No doubt about that," Mr. Kadolph responded.
After further discussions, Kadolph signed a 30-year lease. And a year later, eight towering turbines are spinning high above his crops.
They're part of a 56-turbine project funded by FPL-Energy that's spread out on 2,110 nearby acres.
Each turbine produces enough energy for about 300 homes at a cost of between 3.5 cents and 5 cents per kilowatt hour. That's more expensive than coal-produced energy, which costs about 2.5 cents. But it's a big improvement from the 38 cents wind-power cost in 1980. New turbines can generate power in less wind - breezes as slow as 9 m.p.h. - than ever before.
Industry advocates hope that within 10 years wind power will be cheaper than energy produced by coal and other fossil fuels. Meanwhile, supporters tout the pollution-free nature of wind power. But with increased competition that goal may be hard to achieve.
One problem with turbines, however, is that the blades tend to kill birds. And while the new models are sleeker and less noisy than their predecessors, many communities have ordinances preventing turbines from being built within 1,000 feet of homes.
Back in Iowa, Kadolph won't divulge how much the company pays him to lease the 30-square-foot plots scattered around his property. But he says the fee would cover monthly payments on a new truck.
PER square foot "they're making as much money as if they grew gold out there," says Joe Marchese, the project's manager.
Mr. Marchese and other project managers around the country are rushing to complete their latest wind farms by June 1. That's when a federal subsidy of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour of energy produced expires.
Advocates are confident that Congress will renew the credit.
Meanwhile as more states deregulate their power industries, some are including green-friendly requirements. Eight states have "portfolio energy standards," which set minimum standards for the amount of "green" power available.
Consumers are also showing more interest in such power, even though it adds $15 to $25 per month to their bills. In Colorado, for instance, 11,000 households and businesses have signed up for wind power. In Wisconsin, 6,800 people have made the switch to green power.
Since Pennsylvania deregulated its power industry, 100,000 people have switched power companies. More have signed up with Green Mountain Power Company - which provides electricity from renewable energy sources such as wind - than any other company.
These numbers represent only a tiny fraction of the nation's energy consumers, but even one-time skeptics like recently retired Iowa farmer Delbert Watson are beginning to see this as the way of the future.
The five wind turbines on his land are the biggest change he's seen in 40 years of farming. "I didn't really expect them to come all the way out here in northern Iowa to start a wind farm," he says. "But this is really great. Now we grow corn on the ground and generate power in the air - all on the same piece of property."