Monday, July 04, 2005

Area's winds could power Windy City

Monday, July 4, 2005
Area's winds could power Windy City

McLean County panel to hear wind power plan

By Dan Caterinicchia
Associated Press

CHICAGO -- The Windy City earned the nickname from blowhard politicians, not its weather conditions, but the winds that blow across the vast expanses of farmland throughout Illinois may soon help power the energy-hungry Chicago area.
A Texas company will formally present a $500 million wind power project at a Tuesday hearing in Bloomington of the McLean County Zoning Board, the latest step in a process that began more than three years ago. The result -- in terms of energy produced -- would be the country's largest land-based wind farm.

The largest facility currently operating in the U.S. is on the border of Oregon and Washington and produces 300 megawatts, said Christine Real de Azua, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association.

The Central Illinois proposal -- called the Arrowsmith Wind Power Project -- would feature 267 wind turbines more than 260-feet tall and capable of producing 400 megawatts. The energy would be sent via transmission lines about 130 miles to the northeast, where it would be enough to power an estimated 120,000 homes annually in the Chicago area.

Many environmentalists champion wind farms as a source of clean power. But they have been challenged across the country by people who complain about the "whoosh, whoosh, whoosh" sound their blades produce and say the modern-day windmills are a blight on the landscape.

In McLean County, residents and government officials have expressed concerns about the noise, but also a possible negative effect on the tax base by taking the farmland on which the windmills will be located out of production.

But officials with Zilkha Renewable Energy -- the company behind the Arrowsmith project -- have adequately addressed worries so far, said Philip Dick, McLean County's director of building and zoning. As long as they continue to do so, Dick expects zoning approval.

The nation gets less than 1 percent of its electricity from wind, and the American Wind Energy Association predicts no more than 6 percent by 2020.

Way to meet energy needs

Still, supporters argue that wind farms are a simple way to help the country meet its energy needs. Wind blows through the turbine causing its three massive blades to spin. That motion drives a generator which produces the electricity. The power then runs down a cable into a substation before being transferred to a utility grid where it mixes with electricity from other sources and goes out to meet demand, Real de Azua said.

Illinois currently has two wind farms in operation, but neither approaches the size of the Arrowsmith project.

When it is fully operational, the Crescent Ridge Windpower Project's 33 turbines in Bureau County will be able to generate up to 54 megawatts, enough to supply electricity to approximately 18,000 households, said Stefan Noe, president of Chicago-based developer Midwest Wind Energy. He said 13 turbines are currently running, but foundation issues with the remaining windmills required repairs that should be complete by the end of July.

The 63 turbines at Lee County's Mendota Hills Wind Farm have been spinning since November 2003 and have a capacity of 50.4 megawatts, enough to power approximately 15,000 homes, said Christopher Moore, managing director of Minneapolis, Minn.-based developer Navitas Energy, Inc.

Elroy Swope, 75, has four windmills on his Compton farm that are part of Mendota Hills project.

"I wouldn't do it again," he said. "It just didn't turn out the way it was supposed to."

Swope said he was told he would receive about $1,000 per year per windmill, but after one year, he has not received anywhere near $4,000. He declined to say how much he has been paid.

"Mr. Swope is a difficult person to keep happy," Navitas' Moore said, but he acknowledged that farmers were not paid as much as they expected last year. "2004 was a poor wind year and because it was the first facility, the first part of the year was what I would call startup. We didn't get as much production as we hoped."

This year has been better, but Moore declined to provide statistics about the wind farm's production in 2005.

In McLean County, the proposal calls for the 267 turbines to be constructed over 21,000 acres leased from area landowners, removing about 200 acres of land from crop production.

Zilkha has entered into five-year options with landowners that start at about $5,000 a year and include the right to enter into a 30-year land leases, said Michael Skelly, the Houston-based company's vice president of development.

If approved by the county's zoning board, the McLean County Board and the Federal Aviation Administration would still need to sign off on the proposal, and Zilkha must find utility companies to buy the power, Skelly said.

"There's still a lot of work to do," he said, adding that the best case scenario would have the wind farm partially done and producing power by the end of the 2006 and completed the following year.

Experts say Illinois' strong transmission capacity and huge customer base make up for its average wind speeds. Plus, the projects have the full support of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose renewable energy plan relies mostly on wind power.

Under Blagojevich's plan, electric utilities would provide 2 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by the end of 2006, increasing to 8 percent by 2012.

The Illinois Commerce Commission is examining Blagojevich's energy plan and its recommendation is expected by mid-July, said Steve Frenkel, the governor's senior policy adviser for the environment and energy. The state's two largest electric utilities, Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Corp., have already endorsed the plan, but if it passes they will not be obligated to purchase electricity from a specific wind farm or other renewable energy provider.

"We hope the plan that emerges from the commission very much reflects the governor's proposal," Frenkel said. "We hope to see turbines spinning and energy generated by the end of 2006," from the Arrowsmith project.