Northern Valley Beacon

Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains----- E-Mail: Enter 'Beacon' in subject box. Send to: Minnekota@Referencedesk.org

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

 

Pissing away the wind

The people of South Dakota, particularly farmers, will not realize any advantages from wind energy, even though the state is one of the best for strong, reliable winds. The reason is that corporations, seeing, wind as a significant part of the energy picture, have managed to bind up the development of wind energy so that they will control wind energy like they now control the production of oil and gas.

The guiding principle in the development of wind energy is not how quickly and efficiently it can be developed to free us from dependence on foreign energy. It is how can wind power be established so that consumers can be exploited in the same way they are exploited in their use of oil and gas. State regulators and corporations have worked together to insure that energy distribution from wind sources will be controlled by corporations.

Since July, we have been intensely involved in investigating a possible windfarm in Brown County. As an officer for a small corporation that owns land that cannot be cultivated and is in a belt where wind is strong and constant, I have been involved in assessing the land for wind turbines. It is not likely that Brown County will ever see wind turbines because the powers-that-be--meaning corporations of various stripes--have worked to insure it cannot happen.

A big question with windpower is the matter of storing and transmitting the energy. The way this question is answered by corporations and state regulators portends that private producers and consumers will never see any benefit from wind energy.

Last July, Deere & Co., the producer of John Deere agricultural and industrial equipment, announced that it was embarking on a program to provide financing for individual farmers to participate in the production of wind energy. Its credit division is prepared to help individual farmers put up a wind tower or two on their land. However, to make up a windfarm that meets commercial standards, the farmer would have to:
  1. Be ready to invest in towers that can accommodate 80-foot blades at about $1 million a unit. Deere would help set up the financing.
  2. Be part of a network that would comprise a wind farm of 20 to 30 units.
  3. Have a power distributor, an electric generating plant, willing to buy the power.
  4. Have access to a cable system that can transmit the power to the distributor.

What this would mean for our Brown County location is that we would have to find 20 to 30 farmers in the area to form a production cooperative. Then we would have to find a generating plant that would buy the power. Then we would have to get access to transmission lines to get the power to the generating station, and this is a big obstacle because energy authorities say that such an infrastructure has still to be built.

A further complication is the wind turbines themselves. The U.S. has only one manufacturer of these big wind turbines: GE. And GE's production schedule is locked up for seven years. The other manufacturers are foreign with Denmark and India being leading producers. We were referred to the company in India and found that we would have to have all the provisions for transmission and sales of energy in place before they would schedule production of wind turbines. This is reasonable from their point-of-view, but it makes the development of a wind farm as a cooperative venture a near-impossibility.

That is the reason that wind farms are corporate controlled ventures in the U.S. Corporations can forge agreements with each other while blocking smaller companies or cooperatives from the infrastructure.

Deere & Co. said that its financial backing of wind turbines was based upon the idea of having individual producers farm wind just like they farm crops and livestock, so that they could have a part in producing the energy used in their farming operations. However, their plans are obviously geared toward very large producers who can take on millions of dollars of debt. As we investigated wind power, we found that there are alternatives to the huge windfarms.

Smaller units are available that supply power to individual farmsteads through a number of arrangments. One arrangement involves an intertie system with existing electrical sources. Surplus energy produced is sold to the power source and then redeemed when power is needed.

However, one of the systems is more elaborate and more comprehensive. In this system, the wind turbine supplies some direct electricity to the farmstead, but it also runs an electrolysis machine that divides water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is pumped into storage tanks. During low-wind periods, the hydrogen runs a fuel-cell operated generator. The hydrogen is also used to drive fuel-cell powered farm implements.

While this latter plan is one that scientists and engineers and agricultural economists think offers the most potential for clean, reliable, and abundant energy, it is the one that corporations are most anxious to stop. It would make farmers and other users of energy independent and self-reliant. It would change the entire energy industry and it would require massive changes in the automotive and power equipment industries.

The storage and handling of hydrogen needs some technological development to make it safe, but engineers told us that prototype systems are already in operation.

The developers and advocates of smaller units (an energy system that could supply a farmstead or rural neighborhood runs in the $100,000 to $200,000 range) have said that the huge energy corporations are mounting an all-out effort to prevent the development of independent energy production. Consequently, cheap, efficient, and clean energy is not something we will have in the near future.

[We will be posting related stories on what is happening to wind power development in our area.]


Comments:
We should look into the co-op arrangement made by the farmers in Minnesota's Buffalo Ridge. They own the production, they are not merely wind sharecroppers. The profits are funneled back to the producers, through the co-op. SD landowners MUST have a system with legal, regulatory and physical infrastructure whereby they have a reasonable choice to either be a wind energy producer or a mere landlord collecting rents. The current SD statutory adn regulatory arrangement only allows the latter. Even within the same footprint of a wind energy region (say a few townships) there is room for a mix of wind energy producers and sharedcroppers - if our legislature and PUC were bold enough to craft the rules and laws. For some it's okay to be a sharecropper, but Hyde County is not renewing itself based on sharecropping of a few, as the profits of production are shipped to Florida. We must have the means for landowners to be wind power producers and to profit from it. We should also look to the Minnesota regulatory structure that allowed (forced) transmission of their power on the transmission infrastructure. [It's also noteworthy that the Bureau of Rec's use of the transmission lines supporting the Missouri River damns is under 50%, Thune has the President's ear so he could make the other 50% capacity available.] Seriously, transmission is a huge issue in which the landowners can be their own worst enemy. Instead of allowing every Tom, Dick and Harrietta with a PE to draw lines on a map for transmission lines, we need a policy of wholistic transmission corridors. This values the farms and land use we have. This policy would use what we have, and where its located, to the fullest. For example, the area around I-29 ought to be a transmission corridor - for trucks, for electric power and pipelines. The corridors then branch off as necessary. Instead the current system allows every pet project to further impinge on the more landowners. The farm bureau and union ought to step up to plate on these issues - (but they don't even have a rural energy policy), as should the self-aggrandizing ag engineering school - but they all appear to be more content with feeding at the corporate trough than with having sustainable family farms, small towns, and a vibrant rural SD.
(Philosophical note: recall that when the US successfully assisted with formerly totalitarian regimes (central America, southern Africa) with reform of the country and their economy, that one of the very first steps was to break up the stagnant corporate nature of the ruling oligarchy - whether companies, landholdings, or both; then using these smaller, more innovative entities under new ownership of thousands, tens of thousands of new owners, to invigorate growth. Perhaps such legal and regulatory renaissance is over due in rural energy production.)
 
First rate observations, John. Do you have a take on the hydrogen fuel option?
 
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