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America's future wind web?

Wind power could feed 20 percent of the US energy diet. But first, the country needs a new energy network.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / February 18, 2009

Power tower: Transmission lines near Sioux Falls, S.D. Many more lines in the Midwest will be needed before wind energy can feed 20 percent of America’s energy diet.

Mark Clayton

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MADISON, S.D.

Out across this wind-swept, wheat-growing state, Jeffrey Nelson sees a new crop rising – electricity from the world’s largest wind-turbine farms sending electrons thousands of miles east to Chicago or Boston.

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But it’s a vision the South Dakota Wind Energy Association president says will never happen without something far larger, more controversial, and even more expensive: gigantic new high-voltage transmission lines.

Depending on whom you talk to, emerging plans to build 765,000 volt transmission lines to bring power from the “Saudi Arabia of wind” in the Dakotas to population centers in the Midwest and East Coast are either vital to the nation or a boondoggle waiting to happen.

“This state has vast resources it can’t use without building new power lines,” says Mr. Nelson, gesturing at lines on a grid map at the East River Electric Power Cooperative in Madison, where he is manager. “These high-voltage lines are like farm-to-market roads, but instead of wheat, it’s electricity being transported. We need to think in those terms.”
Many are clearly doing just that.

With political winds blowing toward renewable energy, power-line proposals are popping up to carry wind power around the country. President Obama has said he wants to see renewable wind from the plains help power cities like Chicago. The US Department of Energy last year reported that the nation could harvest 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2020, much of it by tapping wind energy in places like South Dakota, which boasts the fourth best wind resource in the nation.

But to hook up to that steady 20- to 30-mile-per-hour breeze, the nation will need perhaps 15,000 miles of new transmission lines costing $80 billion, according to a new Joint Coordinated System Plan released Feb. 14, by the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO), which coordinates regional power distribution.

“This is information we believe that our leaders need to consider as they begin work under a new administration and start defining our energy future,” John Bear, president of MISO said in a statement.

But grass-roots activists cite not only traditional “not-in-my-back-yard” (NIMBY) concerns about 150-to-200-foot-high towers, but question whether costs can be justified, compared with other renewable choices. As well, they note, such lines could carry far more “black electrons” from coal-fired power plants than green ones from wind.

A case in point involves Titan, which could one day be the largest wind farm in the world located in the middle of South Dakota. The Titan plan for 2,000 wind turbines generating 5,000 megawatts of power caused barely a ripple of media attention when announced last spring. Yet the plan to connect Titan to population centers – a $12 billion, 3,000–mile power line dubbed “Green Power Express” announced Feb. 9 – produced a gale of public attention among environmentalists.

While confirming that electrons from many types of power generation, including coal, would be carried by the proposed line, the key reason to build it is access to wind power, say company officials for Novi, Mich.-based ITC Holdings, which proposed the new line.

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