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Harvesting the Nebraska wind?

March 9, 2010

In the Nebraska panhandle, wind seems to be part of the language of the landscape.

Old-timey farmers have told me this locale would be “paradise, if it weren’t for the wind and the hail.” The website menus of the local NEXT Young Professionals group trigger a wind sound effect. When I mentioned being impressed by the sustained 30-40 miles-per-hour winds during a December blizzard that generated considerable amounts of snirt, I was told “oh, just wait until spring”.

(I had been planning to install a laundry line in the backyard to take advantage of the dry climate and reduce my carbon footprint, but I wonder if my clothes will sometimes get dirtier out on the line, given the dust storms possible in a dryland agricultural region.)

I was not surprised to see a number of these in the landscape:

What has surprised me is the relative lack of these on the horizon:

A little note on terminology: while many people refer to both structures above as “windmills”, technically a windmill is a mill that grinds something, which neither of these structures do. The first structure is a windpump, for drawing up water from the aquifer, and the second is a wind turbine, for power generation. The wind turbines pictured are from the Kimball wind farm.

I have a background in science, so I like to look at data. Here is some lovely data from the U.S. DoE Wind & Hydropower Technologies Program:

Wind resource potential

Current wind harvest capacity

If you look at how purple Nebraska is on the top map, we’ve got tons of potential for generating electricity from wind energy, but, as the second map shows, we’re not capturing that energy.

Here are some comparison numbers (in megawatts) from our neighboring purplish states in the midcontinental windbelt (data pulled from the green map above, and from a data table from the “purplish map”):

  1. IOWA Potential: 570, 714 Actual: 3,604 Percentage developed: 0.631%
  2. TEXAS Potential: 1,901,530 Actual: 9,403 Percentage developed: 0.494%
  3. MINNESOTA Potential: 489,271 Actual: 1,810 Percentage developed: 0.370%
  4. COLORADO Potential: 387,220 Actual: 1,244 Percentage developed: 0.321%
  5. WYOMING Potential: 552,073 Actual: 1,099 Percentage developed: 0.199%
  6. OKLAHOMA Potential: 516,822 Actual: 1,031 Percentage developed: 0.199%
  7. NORTH DAKOTA Potential: 770, 196 Actual: 1,203 Percentage developed: 0.156%
  8. NEW MEXICO Potential: 492,083 Actual: 597 Percentage developed: 0.121%
  9. KANSAS Potential: 952,371 Actual: 1,021 Percentage developed: 0.107%
  10. MONTANA Potential: 944,004 Actual: 375 Percentage developed: 0.040%
  11. SOUTH DAKOTA Potential: 882,412 Actual: 313 Percentage developed: 0.035%
  12. NEBRASKA Potential: 917,999 Actual: 153 Percentage developed: 0.017%

I’ve lived in central Iowa, and if you drive north on I-35 or west on I-80, the farmland positively bristles with wind turbines. Iowa rocks the casbah; Nebraska lags pitifully.

Come on, Nebraska! What’s the deal?

A recent Omaha World-Herald article on Nebraska wind development states:

Nebraska, mainly because of its unique status as a public power state, has been playing catchup in the game to harness the economic benefits of wind.

If I understand things correctly, the “least-cost mandate” is gumming things up, because wind energy is more expensive than coal at the moment, when considered in direct costs.

Ah, but the direct cost does not consider the tragedy of the commons, where utility customers don’t pay for the indirect costs of their energy consumption (particulate air pollution, increased atmospheric CO2, more coal trains providing blank slates for budding graffiti artists).

Nebraska has a reputation as a podunk, backwater state. So does Iowa.

But when you look at the wind energy statistics, Iowa comes across as significantly more forward-thinking.

Chalk one up for Iowa.

Hey, Cornhuskers, are you going to sit there and let the Cyclones and Hawkeyes walk all over you like that?

UPDATE: Nebraska is in the process of changing its laws to work around the public power problem. Apparently eminent domain has also been holding up wind power in the state. The Star-Herald had a nice editorial yesterday, but I can’t link to it; it’s not online.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2010 12:03 pm

    Good for you! YES!

  2. Kurt Goetzinger permalink
    March 9, 2010 1:36 pm

    Great blog post, Katie. May we link to you? Please contact me via email.



  3. March 9, 2010 7:11 pm

    I lived in Colorado from 1996-2000, before the widespread use of wind farms for electricity. When we went back through on vacation in 2004 I was awed by what was once vast stretches of open plain now covered with rows upon rows of wind turbines. There’s something poetic about them — like a giant kinetic sculpture garden. I’m still miffed by the NIMBY folks who are afraid that wind turbines will spoil their view.

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      March 9, 2010 8:22 pm

      I agree with you that they add a grandiose beauty to the plains landscape. When I saw some turbines in a mountain valley in California, those turbines seemed less beautiful. I’ve heard that they can produce a low-frequency noise and that they can cause an irritating “shadow flicker”, but I’ve never been up close to one. I remember a debate about them in central Illinois, where people were worried that the turbine blades would come flying off and kill someone or puncture an underground gas storage tank. Um, really?

  4. Katie Bradshaw permalink*
    March 11, 2010 9:58 am

    Got wind on the brain today. Just finished reading a great book “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. A good-news story out of Africa about a young man who couldn’t afford schooling but who used library resources to build a wind turbine for his home.

    Here’s an excerpt from the book, when he sees California wind turbines for the first time:

    “The true dimensions of the machines revealed themselves once we pulled into one of the wind farms. There, I seemed to lose my sense of scale. The round white trunks of the turbines were like cartoons I’d seen on television, so wide they could swallow my family’s entire house. Stepping outside, I was greeted by the sound of rushing wind, so deep and encompassing, it seemed to pull away my very breath. Looking up, I saw the hundred-foot blades twirling slowly like the toys of God.”


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