The Great Plains has been called the "Saudi Arabia of Wind Energy" because its resources for wind power are so immense, but development of those resources has been slow. Several important long-term factors favor extensive development of the industry in the Plains: wind power is independent of the fluctuations of the world energy market, which many analysts expect to become more extreme; it has a low impact on the environment; and, because wind towers need very small footprints and wind farm wires are underground, it is compatible with grazing, farming, and other Plains land uses. Indeed, for individual farmers and ranchers, wind farm lease royalties can greatly surpass other income.
Through sophisticated engineering of blades and other turbine components, the costs per kilowatt-hour of wind power have been dropping steadily for many years. Only natural gas-burning turbines now produce cheaper power, and high-tech wind turbines are predicted to soon equal their costs–sooner if fossil fuel costs rise, as many expect. In some parts of the Great Plains, wind power is already effectively cheaper than gas when all costs, for example, transportation of fuel, are taken into account. However, Plains state governments, universities, and private utilities have all been slow in recognizing the manifold advantages of wind power for the region. Wind facilities are presently concentrated where state governments have acknowledged the potential of wind power (Texas primarily, but Colorado and Kansas have also offered incentives for "green" power). As of 1999, wind turbine installations also exist in Wyoming, Nebraska, and North Dakota.
According to prospectors who have assessed the Plains winds, North Dakota alone has wind resources that, if harnessed, could provide about a third of the entire country's electricity demand, and the Plains as a whole could provide all the power the country could foreseeably need. However, because of the economics of the electrical industry, wind power is likely to evolve as a largely local institution in the thinly settled Plains. As utilities planners have recently recognized, electrical distribution is more costly than electrical generation. This fact has implications both for generating strategies and for grid planning. For the Plains, it means that wind farm development is likely to be relatively decentralized, a pattern that will minimize grid investment needs. It is also likely to suit the desire of Plains people for local control rather than dependence on distant powerful forces. Because transmission costs and losses favor consumption of power nearer points of generation, state-scale or local generating facilities are probable. They will also have the advantage of increasing local grid reliability in case national power shortages occur. A Danish-owned, thirteen-employee wind machine blade factory has recently been set up in Wisconsin, and other manufacturing and installing companies should follow in the Plains proper. Wind farms provide more numerous jobs per million dollars of investment than any other means of generating power—and without the boom-and-bust pattern of oil and coal. Individual farmers and ranchers with their own turbines will also find themselves able in especially windy spells to sell excess power to the grid through reverse metering.
See also PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Wind.
Ernest Callenbach Berkeley, California
Righter, Robert W. Wind Energy in America: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.