America's ability to provide for its energy needs has come into sharp focus since the September 11 terrorist attacks along the East Coast. Concerns over the security of centralized energy plants and the country's dependence on foreign oil are topics of debate from small Midwestern communities to Capitol Hill. As utility companies continue to look toward alternative means of supplying energy to consumers, the western state of South Dakota has joined the ranks of those states exploring wind power as a renewable energy option. In South Dakota, residents are doing something they don't normally do, praising the infamous Northern Plains winds.
Mention South Dakota's weather to most residents and they'll think of one word: wind. It blows massive snowdrifts in the winter and can bring turbulent rainstorms during the summer. In fact, South Dakotans have a long and proud history of overcoming the negative aspects of living in a state with so much wind. Little did they think they'd ever be able to harness it or earn a profit in the process.
South Dakota U.S. Senator Tim Johnson is a staunch supporter of wind power. He sees it as a solution to the country's energy needs as well as a great opportunity for Americans living in rural areas.
"Wind energy would allow us to reduce our reliance on unstable non-democratic foreign source of petroleum and gas," he said. "It would be good for the environment in terms of clean air and clean water. It would create jobs in rural America that we've never had before. It would create an income flow to farmers, ranchers and tribes as well, for the utilization of their land and generate this energy and the transmission lines to carry this energy. So I think it would be win, win, win across the board for the United States, for rural areas, for farmers, ranchers, tribes, Native Americans."
Wind turbine companies like enXco are attracted by South Dakota's wide-open spaces and powerful winds. With more than 4500 wind turbines worldwide, spokesman Paul White says the time for the company to develop the Great Plains is now.
"The industry is taking off, actually exploding, quite frankly, around the U.S.," he said. "Five or seven years ago it was fairly slow in this industry, but things have come around. Our power is now about the same price as any other energy source. So we're becoming the cheapest alternative to electricity. It's really a Godsend in the areas of the Midwest. It's an exciting new development."
That "exciting new development" can bring landowners between $2,000-$4,000 annually for every wind turbine erected on their property. The thought of pulling in that much money just for letting someone put a bunch of windmills on their land is a thought that many ranchers and farmers find very appealing.
"I think it has opportunities, but I think you have to go into a relationship with a developer with your eyes wide open," said Greg Dean. Mr. Dean is negotiating with a developer that wants to erect wind turbines on his family's cattle and grain farm. He says he's all for the benefits of wind energy, but it's important to find someone to read the fine print.
"These are typically very long term contracts - 20 to 50 years depending on the developer you're dealing with," he said. "You have to look at these as a business deal. It's not just a handshake, that looks good to me, kind of situation. You need to look at a variety of different options. It presents both opportunities and challenges. And I think it has some significant benefits to a landowner, but it's not a gravy train."
With energy demand and prices increasing across the country, developing economical alternatives to traditional energy sources seems like an obvious plan of action especially in South Dakota, where most electricity is generated by dams on the Missouri River.
"The tribes in North and South Dakota have a potential wind resource that's fabulous, said Bob Gough, energy consultant for South Dakota's Rosebud Sioux tribe. "It's 125 times the power that comes off the Missouri River in the form of electricity."
Mr. Gough says the U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that wind power from the Great Plains could provide 75% of the energy needed by the lower 48 states - making the Dakotas the "Saudi Arabia of wind." He says that many American Indian tribes are exploring the use of wind turbines as an energy alternative.
"Tribes around the country have engaged in renewable energy programs to develop it," he said. "Whether you're on an island off the coast of Alaska - the St. Paul Island has got a wind turbine project up there - the tribes on the Great Plains, like the Blackfeet, have been looking at a large, 20 to perhaps 50 megawatt wind farm out in Montana, tribes in the Dakotas have been looking at the potential for anything from single turbine projects to multi-megawatt wind farms."
In November, just north of the town of Chamberlin and some three kilometers east of the Missouri River, the first two commercial turbines in South Dakota were dedicated, launching the Prairie Winds project.
Spirits were not dampened a bit by the lack of prairie winds that day to get the turbines moving.
As turbine company spokesman Paul White pointed out, even wind isn't a perfect solution to America's energy needs. "It's an intermittent resource," he said. "There are periods when the wind is low, or there is no wind. So, it's a supplementary resource. It offsets burning coal."
Coal is still a major source of energy in the United States, but Public Utilities Commissioner Jim Burg says he wants to see wind turbines across his state and he's willing to go overseas to Denmark, France, Argentina or China to get help.
"We should get a grid manager from one of those countries that are using a high percentage of wind to come over and tell us how they're managing that," he said. "How they're putting that inconsistent source of power into the grid and still having reliable energy. And I think that we could learn a lot from them."
Mr. Burg says that all South Dakotans should unite toward one goal. "Harness the wind, the thing that we've cussed for as long as all of us have been in South Dakota and now put into some real use," he said.