The wind is up, and so is interest in wind power development. (Photo by Lester Graham)
Wind power is a small, but fast-growing segment
of the U.S. energy market. Right now, energy companies are scouring rural America for the best spots to put up wind turbines. But wind is not enough – these companies need land, too. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee looks at one wind developer’s search for its next wind farm:
Wind power is a small, but fast-growing segment of the U.S. energy market. Right now, energy companies are scouring rural America for the best spots to put up wind turbines, but wind is not enough – these companies need land, too. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee looks at one wind developer’s search for its next wind farm.
The search for wind power could turn into a modern-day gold rush. Wind’s becoming a profitable way to meet growing demand for clean energy, but wind power companies face an obstacle: they can’t just find a windy spot and throw up some wind turbines.
They’ve got to sign a contract with a landowner, usually a farmer, who’s willing to rent out some breezy land. Mike Donahue is Vice President of Midwest Wind Power. His main job: find windy land and the farmers who own it. Donahue says the job’s changed recently.
“The biggest difference is the level of knowledge and sophistication that local elected officials and landowners have gotten regarding windpower. I mean, when we first started, they were like, ‘Wind what? Wind turbine? What’s that?’ They didn’t even know what a wind turbine looked like, let alone whether they wanted one in their field or not.”
For their part, savvy farmers aren’t waiting around for companies to call them. They’re taking the initiative. David Coffey farms hundreds of acres in Illinois. A few months back, he did a little investigating.
“First of all, I just had got the information from the Farm Bureau Magazine and what was going on in other areas. And I just got it in my mind, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got a ridge here, what’s it worth?'”
So Coffey got equipment from a university and tested the wind along his ridge. The initial results were promising, and the university posted the data online. Donahue’s company noticed the results, and gave David Coffey a call.
Which leads us to today. Coffey’s agreed to give the company a tour of the area. After some quick introductions, Donahue, his partner Tim Polz, and I, squeeze into Coffey’s white pickup.
(Sound of door shutting)
Coffey drives us along a maze of gravel-lined back roads and soy bean fields. Soon, we see the ridge that brought Donahue’s company here. It’s not that spectacular, really. It’s just a big, rolling hill, but it spreads to the horizon.
DONAHUE: “Just eyeballing this, it looks like this ridge runs how many miles, would you say, from east to west?”
COFFEY: “Well, I would say it’s going to be close to… I’d say eight to ten.”
DONAHUE: “And then it’s roughly a mile across it?”
COFFEY: “Yeah, or a little better, if you’re gonna stay right on top of it, I’d say.”
Midwest Wind Power wants a large site like this, because it’s hard to turn a profit on smaller ones. Several farmers own bits of this ridge, so Donahue might have to deal with all of them, and that could be a headache.
David Coffey says some locals are worried about helping out. Landowners who build support for the project might not have enough wind on their own farms to qualify for a turbine and a rental
contract. Donahue says there’s a way to smooth that over. If someone’s been helpful but is left out…
“We actually do offer a kind of good neighbor compensation package to them as well.”
Of course, maybe other companies noticed David Coffey’s wind data, too. Donahue’s assistant, Tim Polz, broaches the subject.
“Have you guys had any of the other developers give you any type of financial offers?”
Coffey says yes, but doesn’t elaborate. Donahue makes his pitch. He says his company offers more than good rent, it offers other benefits attractive to farmers.
“Along those lines, we grant a great deal of flexibility to the landowners to have input into turbine locations, access road locations, cabling routes.”
Even with this flexibility, though, money counts. The company will pay farmers about seven thousand dollars each year for every turbine on their property. That’s a lot for an Illinois farmer. On average, they make only thirty thousand dollars in farm income each year.
Soon the conversation shifts away from money. Donahue asks whether Coffey’s neighbors are mostly farmers.
“If you’re in an area that has a number of non-farming residential homes, maybe built in wood lots, or people who want to live in the country, they’re less accepting of having wind turbines developed in view of their homes.”
Coffey assures him nearly everyone’s a farmer out here. And with that, he ends the tour.
“Well, what do you think of the area?”
Donahue says the company needs to run more wind tests along the ridge, but overall…
“The first impressions are very favorable as to the site and its potential. We’re looking forward to meeting with your other landowners and then ultimately, meeting some elected officials as well.”
It’s not clear what will come of today’s meeting. Maybe another company will land a contract, or perhaps there’ll never be turbines here, but the chances for success improve with each encounter.