If eastern Allen County’s landscape has an abundance of anything, it’s nothingness. Except for an occasional tree, silo, grain elevator, barn, utility pole or steeple, there’s little to stop the late-winter wind from whipping across rich but fallow farmland.
But that very nothingness may soon lead to something big: huge windmills using 21st-century technology to generate electricity and economic growth 400 feet above land cleared by plowhorses and the strong backs and sweat of settlers.
People like Larry Coomer’s ancestors – which is precisely why he has mixed feelings about a project that could pay him thousands of dollars a year for doing nothing but saying yes.
“I don’t know if I would do it. We like the openness. But this is going to be done somewhere,” said Coomer, whose farm due east of New Haven near the state line has, since late 2006, been the site of a tower used to test the practicality of wind-generated electricity. “They came out a couple of weeks ago and said the results were good. Some areas were better, but they said this is worth pursuing.”
As a result, at least two companies have expressed an interested in leasing the hundreds of acres needed to erect as many as 150 huge high-tech windmills, each costing as much as $5 million, according to Paul Burdick, vice president of AES Corp.’s Wind Group. Burdick met with Coomer this week, and said the overall response from nearby landowners “has been quite good.”
Even if Virginia-based AES or Oregon-based PPM Energy secures enough land to make the project feasible, the project could take years to complete – if ever. But there’s no doubt wind power is increasingly practical – and that officials would like Allen County to jump on the bandwagon.
“Hopefully the people out there will accept it,” said Commissioner Bill Brown. “This could provide $1 million of income (for landowners) every year, increase assessed value and help the community. Wind farms also tend to generate plenty in property taxes, Burdick said.
The question is: Will Coomer and other landowners conclude the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? And even if they do, would such a huge and potentially controversial project be approved by government regulators? Allen County’s Board of Zoning Appeals endorsed the test tower erected by Community Energy Inc. of Wayne, Pa., but – at one tower for every 50 to 100 acres, most of which would still be available for farming – this would be something so massive it’s hard to comprehend.
Although the American Wind Energy Association does not list Indiana among the nation’s top 20 states for wind-energy potential, Indiana & Michigan Electric Co. spokesman Mike Brian said improvements in wind-turbine technology have increased the number of potential wind farms. I&M is already buying 100 megawatts of power from a wind farm in Benton County, and although that accounts for a fraction of the utility’s 5,700-megawatt total, Brian expects the figure to grow.
“We’ve done three test towers ourselves near Muncie. It’s important to have a balanced (energy) portfolio between coal, hydroelectric, nuclear and wind.” Predictable fuels such as nuclear and coal will remain important, Brian stressed, because solar and wind power are intermittent. Federal tax credits help make wind power more affordable and should continue, he added.
Power generated by a wind farm in Allen County could be sold to I&M or other companies, Burdick said, reducing the amount of coal or other pollutants needed to generate electricity.
Wind power has its critics, though. Some, like Coomer, question huge windmills’ impact on the scenery. Others say they are too noisy, or object to the potential dangers they pose for birds. But as America attempts to wean itself from its expensive and dangerous addiction to foreign oil, there will be no free lunch.
Nuclear energy is clean, but (as Three Mile Island proved) can be dangerous and creates radioactive waste. Hydroelectric dams can get in the way of spawning fish.
The U.S. has plenty of oil and gas in Alaska and offshore, but environmentalists object.
Even solar power can be controversial. In California, one homeowner was recently ordered to cut down his beautiful and environmentally friendly but sun-blocking trees after a neighbor installed a solar panel.
A year ago, with corn selling for around $2.20 per bushel, economics alone might have made Coomer’s decision for him. Today, with corn selling for $5 per bushel, thanks to growing worldwide demand, the falling U.S. dollar and the demand for biofuels, farming is more profitable – even though Coomer knows that can and probably will change.
So he and his neighbors must decide: Do they give up a little of their beautiful desolation for a pinch of environmental satisfaction and a lot of money? Or do they do the Hoosier thing and cling to tradition?
It’s a decision I’m glad I don’t have to make.
By Kevin Leininger
15 March 2008
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