The price California cattleman Dale Jensen receives for beef on the hoof has dropped dramatically in the last few years, from 90 to 48 cents a pound. But the wind that blows across his land is yielding the sort of steady income that helps keep the Jensen ranch solvent.
In effect, Mr. Jensen sells the winds that blow so consistently over his 100 saline acres in the form of wind rights to the private investor-owners of 30 of California's more than 4,000 wind generators. ''The cattle don't mind the towers, and the towers aren't bothered by the cattle,'' he says.
Many of Jensen's neighbors in the Altamont Pass area are doing the same thing. Indeed, for one week last July, it was calculated that every stereo, air-conditioner, and stove - all electrical appliances - in Tracy, Calif. (population 19,897), were powered by the 250 Fayette wind generators in the region. The wind turbines, each producing enough power for 15 homes, supplied enough energy to the Pacific Gas & Electric grid to power the small California town for the first time last summer.
Silhouetted like giant pinwheels along the Altamont Pass, an hour's drive east of San Francisco, the 95-kilowatt turbines on 40- and 60-foot towers share the land with cattle, birds, and tough dry prairie grass. They were built by Fayette Manufacturing Corporation, one of the many wind-generator manufacturers to sprout in the fertile soil of California's renewable energy tax credits.
Fayette was founded by John Eckland, a California economist and engineer who became concerned about America's energy future in his years as director of energy research for the Central Intelligence Agency. He left government research to start his own wind-energy company after deciding that renewable energy sources could help alleviate America's dependence on foreign oil.
And wind energy is making a contribution, albeit a small one so far. Wind-generated power accounts for over 300 megawatts, less than 1 percent of California's energy demand, but the California Energy Commission projects growth of 6 to 10 percent by the year 2000, says Mike Baltham, a spokesman for the commission.
Although in its infancy and growing less slowly than expected at the height of the energy crises, the wind energy industry is on firmer financial footing since the US Supreme Court decision of May 1983 that utilities must pay small power producers the ''avoided cost'' for electricity. The ''avoided cost'' is the cost to utilities to generate equivalent power from the most expensive back-up method - usually fuel oil.
A small producer has more leverage now to negotiate a long-term contract to supply power to the utility in exchange for a lower cost, according to Scott Sklar of the solar lobby in Washington, D.C., an alternate energy lobbying group. The would-be power producer can then use the contract to get construction financing for a wind farm or small hydroelectric power plant.
California utility consumers win, too. They avoid paying for the costly financing and construction of additional large-scale nuclear or coal-fired power plants.
The ''impacts of a technical breakdown are not so dangerous'' or widespread with alternate energy as with nuclear, Mr. Sklar explains. For example, if a generator in a wind energy farm breaks down, only part of the total generating capacity is lost. But when a nuclear power plant is shut down for servicing or repairs, all the power is lost.
The ''gold in them thar hills'' is not only for cattle ranchers and consumers. California investors reap up to a 50 percent tax credit (25 percent federal and 25 percent state) on each wind machine purchased privately or in $10 ,000 shares through limited partnerships. Although the price of an entire generator - $120,000 - is enough to deter most people, 15 percent of the investors are private individuals. Business is brisk near the end-of-the-year deadline for tax-shelter purchases, according to Budd Steers, spokesman for Fayette Manufacturing Corporation. ''People don't worry about their taxes until there isn't anything of (the year) left.''
Although California accounts for about 95 percent of developed wind-energy capacity in the US, other states with likely sites for wind farms are Montana, Oklahoma, and Kansas, according to Mr. Steers, site aquisition manager for Fayette.
Lower oil prices, the recession, and federal energy funding cuts have slowed development of wind power in recent years. The ''avoided cost'' of electricity paid to small power generators averages 8 cents per kilowatt-hour - not profitable enough now to attract investors without the federal and state tax credits. As the efficiency and reliability of the wind machines increase and the cost drops, the industry should be able to stand on its own even after the expiration of the 15 percent federal energy tax credit in 1985. (Legislation to extend it is being discussed now.) The people at Fayette feel wind generation is here to stay as a significant part of America's energy future.