As our natural resources diminish, the economic cost of powering our homes consistently increases. Most of the electricity generated today comes from non-renewable sources such as coal, oil, nuclear, and natural gas. When generating electricity, the fuel is burned (or the radioactive decay of uranium is used) to heat large amounts of water to produce a high pressure jet of steam, which then is used to turn a generator and produce electrical energy. It is much harder to measure the indirect economic impact of the effects of burning fossil fuels which includes global warming of the Earth’s atmosphere, an increase of sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and toxic mercury emissions into the atmosphere, an increase in health problems such as asthma, and a decrease of clean water supplies. Additional pollution is generated from the transportation of fossil fuels to or disposal of nuclear waste from power plants. Furthermore, as gas prices continue to rise the extra costs for these transportation needs will appear on our power bills.
Wind farms do not produce pollution or hazardous wastes because the electrical energy is generated directly from the rotation of the blades. Because electricity is harvested from the wind turbines and placed directly onto the power grid, there are no added costs or pollutants brought on by transportation via roads or railways. Another environmental bonus is that wind energy production uses far less water than coal, oil, nuclear, and natural gas power plants. For wind turbines, water is used only to clean the blades to prevent damage and decreased production; therefore, wind uses 1/600 as much water per unit of electricity produced as does nuclear, approximately 1/500 as much as coal, and approximately 1/250 as much as natural gas, the most popular choice for new power plants.
As with all new ideas, many concerns have been raised about wind farms. One major concern is that wind is erratic and wind supply may not produce enough energy to meet electricity demand. Therefore, standby generators powered by fossil fuels must keep running in case the wind dies down and the turbines stop. While this is a legitimate concern, wind typically does not stop blowing completely at the height of the turbine (generally over 200 feet), but rather it increases and decreases gradually, allowing enough time for the sophisticated computer control systems to switch to whichever generator is providing power. These fluctuations in electricity generation do not really impact consumer needs throughout the day, and studies indicate that a 100-megawatt wind plant requires only about 2 megawatts from standby generators to compensate for the energy not being provided by the wind. Also, when the wind is blowing, the energy produced by wind farms outstrips that of the natural gas-powered plants, and one day this new source may even outstrip coal-powered electricity production.
Other concerns about the impact of wind farms include possible increases in ground erosion, noise pollution caused by the rotation of the blades, and bird and bat deaths due to collision with the blades. Erosion usually is an issue in arid and mountainous areas but because the High Trails Wind Farm is being built in central Illinois, erosion should not be a problem. As for noise pollution, when wind farms were first implemented as a form of electricity production, the blades were noisy, but with the new designs, they are virtually silent. Regarding bird or bat deaths, wind farms are reported to cause only 1% of bird and bat deaths. There are as many, if not more, caused by already existing man-made structures, household cats, cars, planes and other flying objects. According to the National Audubon Society, cats alone cause approximately 100 million bird deaths each year!
Some people are concerned that the amount of roads needed to build and maintain the wind turbines will further fragment habitat for native wildlife. While this does cause changes in the habitat that many insects, birds and animals live in, there are many other roads built every day that lead to locations that are not as environmentally-friendly as a wind turbine. Roads to turbines will be the lesser of two evils, when compared to the pollution and habitat destruction caused by coal extraction and transportation to conventional power plants. Furthermore, the High Trails wind farm will be built in farmland where the original prairie habitat has been removed already.
In September 2005, Central Illinois joined in the push for a more environmentally-friendly energy source for electricity with the approval by the McLean County board for the construction of the High Trails Wind Farm near Arrowsmith. By 2007, McLean County will be home to one of the largest and most modern wind farms in the country, with over 240 turbines located approximately eight miles east of the Central Illinois Regional Airport producing 400 megawatts of electricity. This new construction will symbolize years of hard work and dedication by concerned citizens and environmental organizations to change the way electricity is produced in the United States. But most importantly, it will provide a clean and renewable energy source for our utilities, will offer new job opportunities for local residents, and will provide an economic benefit to farmers that provide easements for construction of wind towers on their land.
Local Renewable Initiatives
Illinois State University Farm
ISU received $1 million from the U.S. House of Representatives and $500,000 from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation for a $2 project to build a 1.5 megawatt wind turbine at the ISU Farm in Lexington. ISU has had a meteorological tower gathering data about the energy-producing potential of a wind turbine at the farm since early 2004 and think the turbine will provide enough energy to power 400-500 homes. This will be the largest wind turbine fully owned and operated by a state university. Also, ISU is the first university in the country to develop a wind-energy curriculum.
Twin Groves Wind Farm
Located on the wind-swept Bloomington Moraine in eastern McLean County, the Twin Groves Wind Farm (formerly the Arrowsmith Wind Farm) will offer as much as 400 megawatts (MW) of affordable, pollution-free energy generating capacity, enough to meet the annual energy needs of about 120,000 homes.
In spring 2004, the first utility-scale wind farm in Illinois came online. This 50.4 MW project, owned by Minneapolis-based Navitas Energy and located near Paw Paw in Lee County close to Interstate 39, consists of sixty-three 800 kW Gamesa turbines that are around 213 feet tall.