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Windmills are coming to America
Scripps Howard News Service


August 01, 2005

WASHINGTON - Coming soon to America's fruited plains and atop the purple mountains majesty: a lot of giant windmills.

Buried in the energy bill Congress sent to the White House Friday is almost $3 billion in subsidies that supporters have earmarked to build thousands of electricity-generating windmills in the United States. President Bush's spokesman Scott McClellan said the president is eager to sign the bill.

Advocates say windmills are a simple, cheap and pollution-free way of providing energy without burning $60-a-barrel oil or natural gas imported from unstable regions of the world. They are more capital expensive to install than natural-gas power plants but, once up and running, require only occasional oiling to keep working and often can be fixed by someone sitting in an office with a laptop computer.

There are 108 electricity-generating windmills on roadsides near the southeast Colorado farming town of Lamar, and Mayor Elwood Gillis said they have brought jobs and an improved tax base. That windmill farm is the fifth-largest in the world, and Gillis said his hope and goal is to make it No. 1.

"Out here in this area of Prowers County we have a lot of wide-open space and prairie, and rolling hills," Gillis said. "We love the view, and none of us feel it is intrusive whatsoever. I went out there the other day and stood under one of them and there's a little swishing sound, but there was a farmer cutting hay in the field, and cattle on the range, and neither of them paid any attention to it."

Gillis said he has heard no opposition from neighbors to the windmills, and he noted the project went through local public hearings to gain approval, with no one appearing to speak against the project. But he noted there has been significant opposition to expansion plans by a nearby coal-fired power plant.

"They are clean. They use no water. And they have turned what used to be a curse, the wind, into a blessing," he said.

Critics counter that windmills are bird-killers that look like ungainly bathroom brushes sticking in the sky. Each is fitted with high-tech plastic arms longer than a 747's wingspan and capable of making dull thump-thump noises similar to a wet towel in the clothes drier.

Jerry Taylor, director of natural-resource studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, argued that windmills are no solution to America's electricity problem. He said the turbines operate best at night when the winds are strongest, and the technology can't be relied on to meet demands for more electricity in peak use periods during those hot - and often calm - summer afternoons when industry is at work and air-conditioners are running.

Taylor said there would be no windmills if there weren't lavish government subsidies promoting their proliferation. "If wind technology had any merit, we would not need to subsidize it," he said. "It's a nice thought, but they have had to set up a Potemkin village model for it to work."

Taylor also noted the prime locations for windmill farms are some of America's wildest and most scenic areas. That has whipped up intense opposition from local preservationists to some of the proposed sites. "That's not surprising at all," he said, "They have big industrial footprints in wild places. They require a lot of wires and a lot of roads, and the winds are strongest in the wildest areas."

Then there are the birds.

At one of the nation's oldest windmill farms, built on a scenic 50-acre site in Altamont, Calif., some 4,000 windmills have been chopping birds to pieces at the pace of 4,700 a year, according to conservative estimates. Bird lovers are suing to force the electricity farm's operator to take remedial measures. Golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, burrowing owls and other federally protected raptors are among the minced birds the California Energy Commission has recovered around Altamont's generators.

Christine Real de Azua of the American Wind Energy Association, which represents the industry, acknowledged that "Altamont is a problem," but she insisted that other wind farms haven't seen the same sort of bird kills, including another Southern California wind farm built in the flyway of migratory birds.

"That's not to say that an occasional bird doesn't fly into one of the structures," she said. "But they aren't a blip on the chart" compared with bird mortality from power lines, power poles and buildings.

Environmentalists are, not surprisingly, at odds over the farms. Environmental groups are enthusiastic supporters of "green" energy alternatives to fossil fuels. But many of their members oppose windmills because they kill birds and sometimes occupy scenic landscapes.

The Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy are battling the Sierra Club over a proposal to build a wind farm in the Flint Hills region of Kansas, near the last reserve of native tall prairie grass. The local Sierra Club favors the farm, but the Nature Conservancy decries wind farms as no different than any other industrial development. Kansas Audubon Society director Ron Klataske charges that Sierra Club support for green energy can only lead to the destruction of pristine areas of the country.

Some of the most vocal objections to the farms have come from well-heeled property owners in Cape Code and Martha's Vineyard, who are fighting construction of the nation's first oceangoing wind farm consisting of 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound. There's also opposition from seashore groups against plans for ocean projects in that state.

Despite the industry's critics, some 2,000 wind turbines are being built this year, adding an estimated 2,500 megawatts to America's electrical-energy network. Less than 1 percent of America's electricity supply comes from wind, but there are sufficient windmills already built to provide 1.6 million homes with electricity.

A 1 megawatt windmill costs about $1 million to build, and provides electricity to about 300 homes a year. The industry defends its federal subsidy, noting it's far less costly to taxpayers than the oil and natural-gas depletion allowance given the oil giants, or the indirect savings from limits on liability Congress has given the nuclear-power industry.

Real de Azua said she doesn't know future sites for new windmill farms, but the ideal wind conditions are found in the Great Plains and off the Northeast coast. "We look for strong winds," she said. California leads the nation in the number of electricity-generating windmills, New York has many potential sites, she said.

But she said the winds aren't sufficient in states like Florida, where year-around air-conditioning demands are draining energy resources.

Real de Azua described opposition as sporadic, but "very vocal." She noted projects involving a total 2,500 megawatts of wind-generated electricity are under way this year and said that shows that many communities support windmill power.

"It's domestic, it's safe and it's inexhaustible," she said, adding the industry says it's possible that 6 percent of America's electricity demand could be met by wind power by 2020.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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