Going with the wind

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

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

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.

Wind advocates say today's slower-moving blades are less of a threat to birds, and that planners have come a long way in site selection. But not everyone is convinced. In the closer quarters of the East Coast, in particular, residents and tourist boards chafe at the prospect of industrial-size towers dotting pristine mountain ridges and seascapes.

Nonetheless, as costs of other energy sources rise, the East is rapidly emerging as a new frontier of wind power, with new proposals springing up from Virginia to Vermont. Turbines already dot parts of mining country in West Virginia, ridges in upstate New York, and the hills near Searsburg, Vt.

In many cases, these new projects are slated to go on public land, highlighting the dispute between environmentalists touting clean, safe energy and those calling for the protection of open space.

It's all about the view, says Thresher of neighbors' reluctance to give their stamp of approval to 400-foot towers. "There are lots of groups that support [renewable energy], but don't want to look at turbines."

For that reason, small-scale, municipal-size projects, like the windmills in Princeton or the one in Hull, Mass., have often met with the widest support. Independent New Englanders can feel good about generating their own power without inviting in a big utility-size project.

Even Princeton's two turbines, however, have their critics. John Bomba, who owns the neighboring Harrington Farm, is fine with the current, '80s-era turbines, but he worries the two new towers, tall enough to be seen from his property, will hurt his wedding and party business.

"You can just plunk one of these things down in your yard - that's 400 feet tall - and get approval for it," he says.

But other residents say that even if the windmills mar the view, that's a small price to pay. "We have a ski area out there that I'd rather not see," notes Dominic Golding, an environmental-studies professor in Princeton. "I think a windmill is more attractive.... Whatever the disadvantages, it may be a small tradeoff for the energy we get."

Cape Cod plan divides neighbors

Jessica Almy never thought she'd find herself on the opposing side of a renewable-energy project.

A wildlife advocate for the Humane Society's Cape Wildlife Center in West Barnstable, Mass., Ms. Almy cares deeply about developing clean-energy sources to reduce the threat of global warming. In principle, she even supports offshore wind farms.

Just not in Nantucket Sound.

"I think environmentalism fundamentally comes from a desire to protect the communities that you know," she says, struggling to explain her position.

To be fair, the windmills in question are not small. Cape Wind Associates, a collaboration between a Massachusetts energy company and wind-power company, has proposed building 170 turbines spread out over 28 square miles several miles south of Hyannis. Each would be 426 feet tall, and many would be visible from shore (just how visible is a point of contention). The upside: Their output each year would provide more than 70 percent of the Cape and nearby Islands' electricity.

But since Cape Wind proposed the project last July, it has sparked a controversy as wild as the 40 m.p.h. gusts that make Nantucket Sound such an attractive place for windmills. The battle has pitted environmentalists against environmentalists and polarized Cape residents. Opponents compare it to building huge towers atop the ridges of Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, while supporters say all the commotion is just an extreme form of NIMBYism - Not In My Back Yard.

"Like anything in life, there are tradeoffs," says Charles Kleekamp, who lives in the Upper Cape town of Sandwich.

Mr. Kleekamp has spent years fighting a nearby power plant - one of Massachussetts' so-called "filthy five" - and he's thrilled at the prospect of using wind energy instead.

"There are those who think wind turbines are ugly," he adds. "And then there are those of us who think they're graceful, profound studies in motion and energy."

The rallying cry for the antiwind folks is that a seascape of windmills could threaten tourism and fishing. Some environmentalists have also raised concerns that turbines could kill shorebirds that migrate through Nantucket Sound each year.

Almy, a lifelong wildlife lover, worries that underwater construction noises might confuse the seals that live in the area, or harm their hearing. But she also recognizes the dangers fossil fuels pose and the need to develop alternatives - like wind. "I think all environmentalists want expeditious development of renewable energy," she muses. "And all of us want protection of ocean resources. We're just divided on the specific projects."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.