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Going with the wind

For decades, wind power has been an underrated, and underperforming, energy source. Improved technology may change all that.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 2002


When this one-blink Massachusetts town decided against nuclear power 20 years ago, residents turned to an energy source as ancient as time.

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Today, the eight windmills they built still stand on the blustery slopes of Mount Wachusett, white sentries whose metal blades clank and turn in the breeze.

They haven't done a lot more.

On a good day, the windmills might power 30 of Princeton's 1,300 homes. It's the kind of tale that has made alternative energies and their earnest advocates the butt of many an oilman's joke.

But wind power just may be worth another look. Today it's the fastest-growing energy source in the world. And, despite their failed experiment, Princeton residents are among those banking on it.

The town has decided, at a cost of $3.75 million, to replace its struggling eight towers with just two - taller, sleeker, and incorporating all the technological advances of the past two decades. They are expected to generate nearly half the town's energy needs by next fall.

And this time around, Princeton has lots of company. Last year, enough wind energy came online in the United States to power roughly a half million homes. Next year, that number is expected to climb by another 100,000.

The very fact that Princeton is willing to give wind power another shot says much about how far the ability to harness nature has come - and why advocates say wind is poised to make the leap from green-movement boutique to mainstream energy source.

"Wind technology has come a long way in 20 years," says John Fitch, general manager of the Princeton Municipal Light Department. Turbine efficiency and the ability to choose good sites have both improved dramatically. "Now you can produce energy that's much more economical as well as better for the environment."

Not that anyone should expect hood-mounted windmills powering SUVs anytime soon. The reality is that wind power, now a source of less than a half percent of America's energy, won't by the most optimistic estimates provide more than 6 percent 20 years from now.

But the industry's recent growth, driven mostly by improvements in technology and cost, is more than the speculation of dreamers. For the past five years, it's grown by about 30 percent a year worldwide. In Denmark, it now accounts for some 15 percent of all energy use. And in this country, wind farms are working their way eastward, from Pacific Ocean bluffs and ranches in the shadow of the Rockies to the mountain ridges of the Appalachians and the coastal waters of the Atlantic.

To date, the most success has been seen in the Western plains, the vast swath of windswept land that stretches from west Texas northward to Minnesota and the Dakotas. In 2001, the state of Texas alone beat the previous national record for wind power installed in one year.

Much of this power comes from individual farms and ranches, whose owners are paid a fee by energy companies. "It's amazing how much better [the windmills] look when there's change jingling in your pocket," says Robert Thresher, director of the National Wind Technology Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo.

Farmer Darwin McConkey can vouch for that. Three years ago, he was the first person in tiny Alta, Iowa, to sign an energy-company contract. Now he has three 750-kilowatt turbines on his 80-acre soybean and corn farm. Even if the new access roads are a nuisance to navigate with his tractor, he welcomes the extra income - about $2,000 a year from each turbine.

"I make more off the turbines than I do off farming on this land," he says with a laugh, just before heading to the barn to put the horses in for the night. He's still a bit in awe of the technology. "Fifty-seven tons they weigh," he says in amazement. "Biggest cranes you ever seen in your life [to install them]."

A greater challenge than getting the towers up, however, is bringing their cost down. Wind energy remains slightly more expensive than traditional energy sources, such as coal or gas, although the gap continues to narrow. Labs like Mr. Thresher's Wind Technology Center are working to eliminate the need for modest federal subsidies that wind companies currently enjoy. He predicts wind will compete on equal footing by the decade's end.

As wind gains momentum, its critics are getting louder. And some of the loudest, surprisingly, are environmentalists. Their most frequent complaints are that turbines kill birds and are a blight on the landscape. In one infamous 1980s project in the hills east of San Francisco, windmill blades killed hundreds of birds of prey, including golden eagles.