- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

Talk of harnessing the wind as a source of electricity has long been considered a lot of hot air but wind power now is the world's fastest-expanding energy source, and much of the expansion is occurring in the United States.

Attempts to use windmill-powered generators to produce clean, renewable energy have been seen widely as the flaky efforts of die-hard environmentalists. After all, the wind is not always blowing a serious handicap.

Nonetheless, there are areas in the Midwest, on both coasts and in hilly areas of the Middle Atlantic region where there are breezes aplenty. While few were watching, technicians have converted the squeaky, clunky windmills used to pump water on farms into sleek, high-tech obelisks topped by giant propellers or eggbeaterlike spinners that efficiently turn electricity-producing turbines with enough zip to power a city.

The electricity is fed into local utility company grids to supplement and in some instances drastically cut the amount of power generated using traditional coal, oil and natural gas. As wind-power backers are quick to point out, reducing the amount of traditionally produced power lowers petroleum consumption and lessens the nation's dependence on foreign oil while also reducing pollution and providing jobs in a growing industry.

However, the breakthrough that makes wind power feasible comes because technicians have driven down the cost of building wind turbines and related paraphernalia. A kilowatt-hour of wind-generated electricity that cost 38 cents to produce 20 years ago can be manufactured now for 3 to 5 cents.

That means wind power is more affordable than electricity generated using natural gas, which last winter sold in some areas for 15 to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour. Another advantage is that wind-power prices are steady, whereas gas and oil prices fluctuate.

On average, the sale of wind-generated energy to local utilities has increased 40 percent a year for the past five years, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Documents the industry group provides state: "In 2000, turbine sales reached nearly $4 billion worldwide, and industry forecasters expect total installed capacity to triple over the next five years."

"Wind energy is a breath of fresh air," says Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican.

With 12 bipartisan co-sponsors, Mr. Grassley has introduced the BREEZE Act the Bipartisan Renewable Efficient Energy With Zero Effluent Act. The proposal would extend for five years a production tax credit for those firms developing electricity-generating "wind farms."

"Wind energy is reliable, renewable, inexhaustible, environmentally safe and homegrown," Mr. Grassley says. "It's so good that we need a lot more of it."

Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. agrees. The Oklahoma Republican and three colleagues sponsored the Home and Farm Wind Energy Systems Act, which provides an investment tax credit for householders and farmers who buy small wind-powered generators.

Such units are feasible in breezy areas on lots of an acre or more. The turbines are tied into the home's electric meter, and electricity from the wind turbines flows into the existing electric utility power grid.

When the breeze fades and windmill blades stop spinning, power provided by the local electric utility enters the home. When the wind blows and the turbine generates power, the meter actually runs backward, reducing the user's utility bill.

Because utilities in most states buy wind-power energy that is produced but not consumed, the wind-turbine owners actually could earn money from the utility. This is attractive to many.

Indeed, the industry association estimates Americans will buy some 4 million to 8 million small turbines in the near future. The Department of Energy puts the figure at 5 million.

For the most part, however, wind turbines aren't used to power homes and small businesses, although Mr. Watts believes they should be. Rather, big windmills more than 80 feet tall with blades stretching more than 30 feet are used to supply large volumes of energy for sale to utilities. Many of them have been installed in areas likely to produce high volumes of power.

Hawaii has the biggest wind turbine, 20 stories high. Its blades are 300 feet long, and it produces enough electricity to power 1,400 homes. The small turbines favored by Mr. Watts are roughly 30 feet tall and have blades ranging in size from 8 to 25 feet.

Through land leases, a farmer or rancher can earn more than $2,000 a year for each wind turbine installed on his property. That is a huge boon when the windmills are placed on land difficult to till. In Iowa, windmill owners are paying more than $640,000 a year to landowners, Mr. Grassley's office reports.

Last year the United States added enough new wind generators to power 240,000 homes. Although wind-generated electricity accounts for just 1 percent of the nation's power-generating capacity, that figure is expected to double soon.

According to federal estimates, the wind conditions in North Dakota would enable that state to produce a third of the nation's energy needs. North Dakota and 11 other states in the central part of the country have the potential to produce four times the amount of power the United States requires.

Consider the Florida-based FPL Energy company. It operates wind turbines in Iowa, Texas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon and California and calls itself the nation's largest generator of wind power.

The company's turbines continuously produce some 1,000 megawatts once they crank up. Because engineers calculate that 1 megawatt or 1 million watts of wind-generated electricity will serve 300 households, FPL's generators can produce enough energy to serve 300,000 homes.

Richmond-based Atlantic Renewable Energy Corp. is reported to be the East Coast's leading wind-power developer. It has been operating electricity-generating windmills in New York since last year and in the past two months has brought units on line in Pennsylvania.

One of those windmill clusters the wind-power facility nearest to the Washington metropolitan area is 125 miles from the District at a spot called Appalachian Highlands near the point where Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia intersect.

By all accounts, these ventures are just a sampling of what is to come. The federal government is pushing hard for wind-power development, as are many states.

David Garman, an assistant secretary at the Department of Energy, explains that wind power can among other perks provide new income sources for farmers, Indians and other rural landowners.

Mr. Garman, who heads the DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network, summarized the wind-power situation: "The president's national energy plan directs us to expand the use of renewable energy, and we now believe wind energy is the most economic near-term renewable resource."

Researcher Clark Eberly contributed to this report.

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