ROCK PORT, Mo. – Clarence Schaffner knows wind power.
His father, Louis, crisscrossed Iowa and Missouri in the early 1940s, installing one of the earliest versions of a wind turbine. They called them windchargers.
Used mostly by farmers, the small devices generated six volts and cost about $50. Schaffner said they powered everything from the farmhouse to the chicken coop.
Times have changed, and so have wind turbines.
As Schaffner talked about the pioneer days of wind energy, four 250-foot-tall white towers – each with three 90-foot-long, knife-like blades – churned on green hills a few miles behind him.
The million-dollar-plus turbines are the new symbol of Rock Port – the first U.S. city to get 100 percent of its electricity from wind power.
Most people know Rock Port as a place to buy fireworks.
“I think it’s great,” said Schaffner, standing on the front porch of the old Opp Hotel, now the home of the Star Hill Prairie Art Institute. “It’s a good source of power.”
Other residents voiced the same sentiment. Said Bud Harger, who helps out at the local hardware store: “Anything that has to do with renewable energy has to be good, regardless of whether or not it’s economically feasible.”
It costs almost twice as much to generate electricity from wind than from coal, the source of half of the electricity generated in the U.S.
But wind energy groups and developers say the cost is gradually dropping as more large-scale wind farms are built. A recent U.S. Department of Energy report said wind energy could account for 20 percent of the nation’s energy supply by 2030.
All-wind energy communities like Rock Port could become more common across the Great Plains, where the wind blows fiercely at times. In Rock Port, the wind speed averages about 18 mph at the top of the Loess Hills, gently rolling hills and bluffs that rise 200 feet above the flat plains along the Missouri River.
Dependable wind was one reason why Tom Carnahan, president of the St. Louis-based Wind Capital Group, developed the four-turbine Rock Port project, officially known as the Loess Hills Wind Farm, and the Cow Branch Wind Energy Center, a 24-turbine project just east of Rock Port.
The Cow Branch turbines have 140-foot-long blades.
Each wind farm is a separate project, but combined they generate about 55 megawatts, enough to power more than 30,000 homes.
Carnahan, who was in Rock Port this week to film a segment on the wind turbines with ABC News, said the Loess Hills turbines produce enough electricity to meet the needs of the town’s 1,400 people and a second town the same size. What the town doesn’t use is bought by Missouri Joint Municipal Utilities, which sells it on the wholesale market.
The town of Rock Port does not own the four wind turbines. The $10 million project was built and paid for by Wind Capital Group and the John Deere Credit Co., based in Des Moines, Iowa.
“It didn’t cost the city a dime,” Carnahan said.
Despite its wind resources and proximity to transmission lines, the Rock Port project never would have happened without the enthusiastic support of the town’s residents, Carnahan said.
“You have to have strong community support,” he said. “It’s the difference between a project working and not working.”
Jim Hughes, the town’s utilities superintendent, said the arrangement has worked well. When there’s no wind and the turbine blades are still, the town gets its electricity from the same cooperative that buys its excess power when the turbines are really turning.
The turbines have allowed the town, which owns and operates its electricity utility, to semi-retire its six diesel generators. Now the generators, which burn high-priced fuel, are used only sporadically during periods of peak demand.
Hughes and City Administrator Maureen Moore said electric rates have gone up (some residents say by as much as 20 percent), but not because of the wind turbine project.
Moore said the rate increase took effect about six months before the project went online in April. Both officials said they hope the turbine project will help stabilize electric rates.
Both the Loess Hills and Cow Branch wind farms are within 50 miles of the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge and two key waterfowl migration routes, the Central and Mississippi flyways.
Refuge manager Ron Bell said birds and waterfowl do use the Loess Hills and the Missouri River. He sees the benefits of renewable energy, but also the downside.
“It has a potential for birds hitting the blades, especially on days that are overcast and cloudy,” Bell said.
No discussions were held with Wind Capital Group or Rock Port officials before the projects were being built, Bell said.
With the turbines on private land, there is little the refuge can do as far as monitoring a bird-kill situation. He’s also concerned more wind farms will crop up on the Loess Hills. Bell said 800 acres of the 7,350-acre refuge are in the bluffs.
The turbines already are attracting people from nearby Interstate 29, said Police Chief Curtis Elam. They want to know where they can get close-up photos, he said. The towers are on private property, but there are good views from U.S. 136.
Nancy Teague, owner of Rock Port Recollections, said the turbines are a progressive move by the community, but she doesn’t think they will bring in a lot of tourism.
“Everyone who comes into the shop off the interstate is amazed at the look of the wind turbines,” Teague said. “It creates interest, but I don’t know if it will bring people.”
Walter Shandy of nearby Phelps City, who was pumping gas at Casey’s General Store, likes seeing the turbines towering over Rock Port.
“I’ve seen it out in California —been out there a few times. It’s kind of strange around here till you get used to it,” Shandy said.
The 79-year-old retired mason said the project brought workers and money to the farming area. But now he wishes someone would invent a renewable source of energy to power cars and trucks.
“I hate paying $4 per gallon,” Shandy said, pointing a finger at the gasoline pump.
By Algis K. Laukaitis
16 May 2008