Towering on the Horizon: Wind Farms and Energy Independence

Acciona Wind TurbineThis past July 4th some friends and I headed south from our farm to visit the new EcoGrove I Wind Farm in Lena, Illinois, located in Stephenson County (in the northwestern part of the state).

The creation of the EcoGrove I Wind Farm was precipitated by the State of Illinois adopting a Renewable Energy Standard that required the state to generate at least 25 percent of its power from renewable energy sources by 2025. Cleaner air, using an abundant and renewable energy source, and providing various community benefits make wind farm development likely to continue, at least until more Americans change our energy-intensive ways.  From my perspective, however, energy independence is more about breaking free from our fossil fuel addictions to coal, natural gas and oil rather than simply securing domestic sources of energy that are polluting and/or add more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The $200 million EcoGrove I Wind Farm is owned and operated by the sustainability-focused business Acciona Energy North America; its parent company is Acciona S.A., headquartered in Spain. EcoEnergy LLC and The Morse Group managed various aspects of the planning, mapping, permitting, engineering and interconnections for the project.

The EcoGrove 1 Project comprises 67 turbines spread across about eight thousand acres to create a 100 megawatt (MW) wind farm capable of powering over 25,000 homes. Thirty of the 67 Acciona turbines were manufactured in West Branch, Iowa, with the rest coming from Spain. The energy produced is sold to ComEd (Exelon Corporation) which then directs the energy where needed. An additional two phases are planned.

“The upper Midwest has tremendous wind energy potential and EcoGrove is one great step toward harnessing that potential.” said Kimberly L. Smith, Vice President Construction and O&M Services, Acciona Energy North America.

Below are of the few of the benefits in more detail, though our group was blown away by their sleek design of the blades and the way they towered over the emerging cornfields in early summer.

Environmental Impacts

The wind turbines themselves will produce about eighteen times more energy in their 20 year lifespan than it takes to build and install the turbine. The EcoGrove I Wind Farm offsets about 176,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually because coal-fired power plants weren’t used to generate electricity. With careful sighting of wind farms, especially by avoiding major bird flyways and migratory routes or nesting areas for bats, they can produce energy without the harmful impacts that result from other energy sources (or nuclear waste that’s toxic for over 10,000 years).

Community Benefits

While many municipalities scramble to cover budget shortfalls, some with wind farms have encouraged a long term vision for their community that recognizes the threat posed by climate change while insuring a steady tax revenue stream for county and township coffers.

“There are fourteen taxing districts that will benefit from the EcoGrove windfarm,” says Tom Hiester, ACCIONA VP of Development, Central Region.  “In aggregate, the EcoGrove windfarm will provide on average over $850,000 annually of new property tax revenues, with some years exceeding $1 million.”

“As a part of the incentive program to attract the EcoGrove windfarm to Jo Davies and Stephenson Counties,” explains Hiester, “twelve of the taxing districts provided an initial three year abatement of property taxes.  The remaining two, the largest taxing districts, are the school districts.  In these districts, the EcoGrove project and the districts entered into a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement wherein the property taxes are abated for four years.  However, the project pays a significant amount to the school districts directly in each of those four years.  In addition, the project is paying the school districts for purchases of new technology equipment, and Acciona will provide a long-term program of scholarships each year for promising and performing students interested in a career in sustainability.”

Economic Opportunity

Beside the boost to local tax revenue, the EcoGrove wind farm provides lease payments of up to $5,000 per tower per year to area farmers who own the land on which the towers are located. Leases run for twenty years, with an option for additional years.

Of course, there are also new jobs created for those individuals needed to maintain the turbines.  According to a 2004 study by the Renewable Energy Policy Project, Illinois stands to gain more than 8,500 green jobs and $2.85 billion in investments due to wind energy development.

My Disclaimer: Curtailment and Conservation

The EcoGrove I Wind Farm we visited is here because electricity use in the U.S. is expected to continue to grow. In fact, this wind farm (along with the many nuclear reactors and “clean coal” electricity generation plants now on the drawing boards nationally) was needed because most Americans refuse to use less energy by curtailing our lifestyle or adopting more energy efficient ways of working and living. Europeans tend to have a similar quality of life, I discovered when traveling there, despite the fact that they tend to use less than half the energy we do in America.

Conservation and efficiency could go far further in eliminating the need for any new facilities and possibly result in the closure of some old, inefficient and polluting ones. But the present economic stimulus package, while a nice first step, falls short (with only a $1,500 tax credit to homeowners, for example, for projects that often cost over $10,000).  I’m struggling to find ways to tap these new incentives in an effective way but keep hitting clauses that prevent me from doing so (a topic for a future blog). That said, government policy alone will not do the trick. We need to fundamentally change the way we live, work and play in America.

I, for one, enjoy the freedom to line-dry my laundry (punishable by fine in some communities), generate my own renewable energy with a 10kW Bergey wind turbine (thanks to Wisconsin laws that encourage me to do so), and work from a home office whereby I’ve eliminated the commute, something I advocate in ECOpreneuring. In short, my family and I have changed the way we live, work and play. And life’s pretty good!

Our visit to the EcoGrove I Wind Farm in Illinois is a reminder of the kind of systematic changes in our approach to energy production that’s needed until a culture of curtailment is embraced by most Americans. Meanwhile, the county in which we live — adjacent to the county with the wind farm — remains committed to importing just about all its energy: coal, oil, and natural gas. One solution is blowing in the wind. Another is growing in our fields, with our soybeans able to be transformed into biodiesel for vehicular transport and used in lieu of number 2 heating oil. It’s a matter of changing course, not just hoping for the best.

It’s all about changing our perspective of the horizon.

Photography: John Ivanko/www.innserendipity.com

  1. Quench water coolers

    The use of wind farms, especially the clothes-line type device of wind farms is a great idea in regards to power generation using wind. Maybe this will also help the building of better systems for water as well as agriculture

  2. Evogirl

    How much more expensive is wind generated energy in comparison to regular? Currently, we are a start up company (EVOBEAN) looking for ways to keep our coffee kiosks sustainable. Currently looking into solar panels but we would like make use of wind generated energy when necessary. How do we do this?

  3. Anjali Singhal

    Hi John,
    I came across your blog and found it very interesting. Actually I was wondering if I could get a contact from you regarding visiting the Ecogrove wind farm. I’m a part of a student group at Northwestern University, called NETG (Northwestern Energy Technology Group – http://netg.northwestern.edu). We were hoping that we could organize a tour to the windfarm.


  4. John Ivanko

    Hi Anjali:

    Thanks for your note. I’d try connection with Acciona directly. I’m on assignment and nowhere near my notes for the piece, but you can get pretty close to the turbines just from the road.

    Great idea. Wind remains to be more cost effective than PV, if you have a good site, “friendly” utility, etc. For comparison of our output and other details, see http://www.innserendipity.com and click on the wind and PV output pages.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *