Despite a steady wind of opposition, wind-power turbines are proliferating today all across the United States, providing a renewable, pollution-free source of electricity for more than a million homes. The Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally chartered energy provider, has become the first utility in the American Southeast to offer its customers wind-generated electricity.
Wind energy appeared in the 14th century as a way to power machines around the farm particularly grain mills creating the term windmill. Today these energy-producing machines are called wind turbines and, instead of being made out of wood and fabric, these futuristic structures stretch toward the sky on sleek white metal towers topped by giant rotors that harness the wind with shimmering fiberglass blades. At about 120 meters tall, some are taller than the statue of liberty and each of its blades is twice as long as a city bus.
Gary Harris is the manager of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Green Power Switch program, which generates electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar panels and methane gas. "These turbines can produce 660 kilowats of energy," he said. "The blades, each of the blades of the wind turbine is approximately 75 feet long [25 meters]. And when the blade is in the upright position, it's almost 350 feet [118 meters] from the tip, from the top of the rotor to the tip of the ground."
In 2001, TVA, the largest public utility in the United States, installed the turbines on Buffalo Mountain in Oliver Springs. While Mr. Harris says the turbines are performing better than expected today, he notes that TVA faced serious challenges to get the project running. First Mr. Harris had to relieve technical concerns that wind energy's sporadic nature might disrupt the even flow of electrical current on the power grid. Despite environmental assessments examining everything from wind speed to community approval to safety for migrating birds, TVA also had to readjust turbines so they would stop going into overspeed and shutting down. And all of this came after TVA toiled to install the turbines a process that took over three months and involved building an access road up the mountain for cranes and trucks.
Ultimately, each turbine cost $1 million to erect. Mr. Harris originally wanted the machines to reside on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga. It would have been easier to mount the turbines there and Tennesseans would have been better able to tour the larger than life pinwheels. However, a "not in my backyard" sentiment prevailed, and TVA chose the old mining site on Buffalo Mountain instead. "Ours have to be placed on top of mountain tops where our best resource is," said Gary Harris. "When you do that sometimes you encounter people who are concerned because they have a certain way of life here in the Tennessee Valley that they've grown accustomed to and the change in the visual surroundings by erecting wind turbines might not fit with everyone."
It does fit with Cecile Markum. She can't see the turbines from her house, but lives near the mountain. The grandmother and resident of Oliver Springs says not only is she for the turbines, but so are many of her neighbors. "I've asked around the past few weeks," she said. "Does anyone not want them, not like them? And I didn't get one single negative comment. In fact some people did not realize they were that close to Oliver Springs. In fact one little old lady who she's in her late 80s said she thought it was wonderful. She just wished it [had] come along sooner."
In the 1970s it did seem a national wind-energy boom was imminent. California led the way, but because the state's wind energy tax credit rewarded entrepreneurs for the number of turbines they erected rather than the amount of energy their businesses produced, people took advantage of the tax credit to the point of corruption. This caused a political backlash and the incentives were removed. In 1992 the U.S. Congress adopted a new production tax credit and the Department of Energy began to invest in turbine development. This support - combined with more efficient technologies has helped the cost of wind energy drop by 80% since 1980. The United States is now in the throes of the biggest wind boom ever wind-generated electricity costs have come down to just 3 - 6 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 2 to 5 cents for conventionally-produced electricity.
Peter Asmus is an author and journalist who spent over 10 years researching the wind industry. He says wind would be even more competitive if there were a level playing field in the power industry. "There are people who say in 5 years it will be the cheapest source without that tax credit," he said. "And of course the thing you have to keep in mind when you talk about wind is there are all sorts of subsidies for nuclear and fossil fuels that people don't talk about. So if you took out all of the subisidies of all energy sources, wind power would be the cheapest."
Wind energy may be the cheapest power source once a wind farm is established, but before that can happen, wind energy producers have to defray set-up costs like purchasing and installing turbines. Typically they do this by either increasing rates for all customers or by relying on voluntary participation. Right now, TVA relies on customers to sign up for its green power switch program at $4 extra per 150 kilowatt hours. For every person who joins, that's less demand for more polluting energy sources like coal, and more money for the green power program to expand. TVA has over 4,000 green power switch customers, including corporations like Lowe's and Kinko's. And that suits Cecile Markum just fine. "It would be nice to have a free God-given energy and that's what it is," said Cecile Markum. "There's no chemicals in the wind, it's just wind."
The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a study that says as much as 20 percent of America's electricity could eventually come from wind, and that the transition would help to reduce consumers' utility bills. Despite today's added costs, TVA's customers are demanding more wind power than the utility can currently produce. With the planned installation of 10 more turbines, however, TVA hopes not only to meet that demand, but to create a program that can be a model for other utilities in the United States.