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As the wind wheels turn, Indiana leaves market alone

If the term “wind power” evokes images of picturesque Dutch windmills amidst a landscape of tulips, take a drive on I-65 north of Lafayette. A wind farm in an Indiana cornfield looks more like the setting for a sci-fi film than for a 17th-century Flemish painting.

Hundreds of turbines loom over the adjacent countryside. Rotary blades of 100 feet or more top massive towers and sweep a vertical airspace of just under an acre apiece.

“It is surreal, very surreal, the first time you see it,” acknowledges Travis Murphy, program manager for renewable energy in the Indiana Office of Energy Development.

Hoosiers, get used to the sight. Indiana is in the middle of a wind power boom encouraged by liberal taxpayer subsidies at the federal level and plentiful wind resources and easy access to transmission lines at the state level.

Four wind farms producing 1,036 megawatts per year are online in Indiana; 20 more are being developed or have been proposed. The Fowler Ridge Wind Farm in Benton County operated by BP is the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi. Horizon Wind Energy, the one lining I-65 in White County, is expanding that site to produce more than 1,000 megawatts per year. That will make it one of the biggest wind farms in the world.

Interest in wind power is exploding even as the economics of wind power are under attack. Touted as a cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels, it’s not that cheap and it isn’t reducing reliance on fossil fuels, Robert Bryce wrote in the Aug. 23 Wall Street Journal.

Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote, “A slew of recent studies show that wind-generated electricity likely won’t result in any reduction in carbon emissions – or that they’ll be so small as to be almost meaningless.”

At the same time, he noted, the wind industry receives much heavier subsidies than those for oil and gas. The federal government provides a production tax credit of just over 2 cents for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by wind, 200 times greater than those given to oil and gas on the basis of per-unit-of-energy produced.

If wind power alone provided electricity for a family of four, the Heritage Foundation calculated in March, it would cost $339 a month compared to $188 for coal. Statistics like these have critics worried that the federal government’s push toward renewable energy will cost consumers in the long run.

Murphy has a different take on the situation. Indiana’s objective isn’t to replace fossil fuels with wind power, he said. In fact, it’s “a bit of a misconception that it’s going to get us off coal. Coal is a part of our energy mix and means a lot to our economy.”

Murphy sees wind power as a way to add capacity in a market in which demand typically goes up 2 percent a year. It will do so in a cleaner and more fiscally stable manner than imported oil, for instance.

Indiana wisely has avoided precise targets for the percentage of energy that must come from alternative fuels. That’s allowed the market to develop on its own. About 30 states have set specific requirements, and Congress has discussed doing so nationwide. California by 2020 will require utilities to get a third of their electricity from renewables, which critics fear will cause electricity costs there to skyrocket.

Murphy says Indiana’s policy goal is to produce more of its energy using in-state resources. Local communities will take the lead in determining whether wind power is right for them. All four existing wind farms received local property tax abatements in addition to federal subsidies but no special incentives from the state.

That’s as it should be. The verdict’s not in on whether wind power makes economic or environmental sense. Whether you agree with federal subsidies or not, they’re being handed out like candy, so – unless you can’t stand seeing those massive turbines – there’s no harm in Indiana getting in on the action.