In the 1850s Chief Seattle suggested that the wind could never be sold. But Seattle never witnessed the new economy. Wind rights are now for sale and they're going fast. Brokers are offering cash to farmers who are willing to plant a crop of wind turbines, and farmers are discovering that investing in wind power can be more profitable than raising traditional crops. In Minnesota, for example, a typical annual harvest nets $40 an acre; a single wind turbine, which takes up about one-eighth of an acre, generates about $2,000 in a year.
Turning wind into power is nothing new. Europeans have been using windmills since the 1500s. Windmills were also used throughout the American West in the early 1900s until the arrival of rural electrification. Modern windmills are once again sprouting up across the United States as wind farms become a viable option for utility companies struggling to meet high demands in the face of rising oil and gas prices.
Much of the growth in wind-produced energy is due to the development of more efficient turbines, making wind power competitive with other energy sources—and more than just a green power fad. Today's turbines have sophisticated sensors and blades that are able to rotate and change direction automatically to capture the most wind. A modern 1.5-megawatt turbine can produce electricity for 3 to 4 cents a kilowatt-hour, which is comparable to coal-fired plants, according to a recent analysis by Stanford University engineers.
In addition to being cost-effective, turbines are environmentally friendly. Wind power produces no air pollution. It does not threaten the earth's climate. It does not deplete our natural resources, and no land must be strip-mined to extract wind.
With capacity expected to double the next year, wind is the nation's fastest-growing source of electricity. According to studies by the Earth Policy Institute, Texas, Kansas, and North Dakota combined have enough wind potential to generate electricity for the entire United States.
But what happens when the wind stops? Until a storage mechanism can be created, utilities are forced to rely on backup power sources. Another obstacle facing wind power is a shortage of adequate transmission lines—a key component in getting energy from rural areas to population centers. New technologies, however, such as the development of compressed-air energy storage and high-voltage transmission lines, are being advanced to overcome these hurdles and help eliminate energy shortages.
Large companies are eager to harness the wind. Shell Oil, for example, recently bought its first wind farm in Wyoming. Landowners are also eager to collect wind royalties—especially farmers who can continue to farm with turbines on their property. As Pat Wood, President Bush's appointee to the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, observed, "We've got lots of wind and it's about time that people figured out a way to make some money off it."
Energy policy for the twenty-first century should take into account emerging technological advances in wind power and other alternative energy sources. If wind power is cleaner than and as cheap as coal-fired power plants, then perhaps the answer to our energy crisis is blowing in the wind.