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A Second Wind
Abstract of an article by James Chiles, originally published in the March
2000 issue of Smithsonian.
An unlikely alliance of Midwesterners says it is time to take another look
at generating electricity through wind power
"I count over a hundred white wind towers," reports writer Jim Chiles,
"standing in widely spaced rows, each more than 200 feet high and looming
over hills that are green with corn, alfalfa and soybean crops." Chiles
stands on Buffalo Ridge in Minnesota and is witnessing what some people
think will be a big part of America's energy future.
During the past five years, the nation's biggest wind farms have all been
going up along this ridge, which stretches more than 100 miles from Storm
Lake, Iowa, through Lake Benton, Minnesota. Compared to their California
cousins of the 1980s, the 600 wind turbines on Buffalo Ridge represent a new
generation of wind-energy technology: computer-controlled, easy to erect,
large and reliable. The boom in Midwestern wind power is fueled not just by
this new technology, but also by a curious assemblage of farmers,
entrepreneurs, politicians, environmentalists and utility executives.
"We were an unholy alliance," says Jim Nichols, referring to one example
where environmentalists and a utility cut an unusual agreement. The Northern
States Power Company (NSP) was in desperate need of legislative permission
to store spent radioactive fuel inside massive containers called "dry
casks." Former state senator Nichols lined up support at the state
legislature to ensure that NSP would "earn" those casks by committing to
1,425 megawatts of wind power, which represents about half the output of a
nuclear power plant.
A question remains whether wind itself will be constant enough for wind
energy to provide more than a percent or two of America's electricity. But
Nichols and others believe that the future of wind power isn't so much
predicted as persuaded. Only time will tell.