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Renewable Power Source Part of Midwests Response to Energy Crunch

With the help of the IBEW, the power of wind is being harnessed in a new era of renewable electricity production.
Credit modern-day windmills for the transformation taking place across the flat, pastoral landscape of northwestern Iowahundreds of 300-foot structures with long thin rotating blades sprouting up as fast as cornstalks in July.

They have a good source of wind up there, in northern Iowa, said Ronald Garrett, Local 204, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, business manager, whose linemen are working on the second wind project in two years in northern Iowa.

Wind is gaining new favor as a renewable source of energy in todays energy-starved market. And IBEW workers are on the forefront of the technology to build todays wind farm.

Several members of Local 204 are working to build the Top of Iowa Wind Farm, nestled in a cornfield in Worth County, Iowa. They are installing underground lines to power substations from the individual turbines at the base of each huge windmill.

The ability to go online quickly is among wind generations greatest assets. It takes up to five years to site and build a gas turbine; it takes as little as six months to site and build a wind farm.

But wind power has its limitations. The intermittent nature of wind is a challenge for those hoping to capitalize on one of natures most renewable elements. Unlike coal, natural gas, hydro and nuclear fuel, the wind cannot be stockpiled for use at peak demands. And electricity itself cannot be economically stored. It must be immediately sent to the power grid when produced, creating integration challenges still confounding wind generators.

But to hedge that bet as well as possible, energy companies are not building haphazardly. A strong wind tunnel exists through northern Iowa and southwest Minnesota that always seems to send the turbines racing.

This is an area where wind blows at a pretty constant rate, said Local 204 lineman Jim White, who is working on the Top of Iowa project. If we get a calm day, you can pretty much mark it down on the calendar.

The mechanics of a wind turbine have not changed much over the years. But the sophisticated electrical equipment used in the harnessing and distribution of the high voltage power is making wind generation more competitive.

In Iowa, wind turbines range between 600 kilowatts and 1.5 megawatts in capacity. They sit on 215-foot towers and the blades range from 75 to 110 feet. The large modern turbines typically spin at about 20 revolutions per minute. While they appear to be turning slowly, the speed at the tip of a blade can approach 150 miles per hour. The turbine constantly searches through computer control for the best wind direction and the blades will rotate to the right pitch to extract the maximum amount of energy from the wind.

The blades start turning with a wind of 3-4 mph, start generating power when the wind is 8-9 mph and reach peak capacity at about 32 mph.

Each turbine consists of a tower, a nacell (a box-like structure that contains the electric generator), a hub that connects the blades to the generator and a transformer. IBEW work is concentrated on building the lines and making the connections from each tower to the substations and finally to the transmission line, Garrett said.

Modern wind turbines, which have an installed cost of approximately $1 million each, are equipped with sensors that constantly monitor their workings. If they sense a problem or if the wind speed is too high, the sensors automatically shut the turbine down. 

The American Wind Energy Association says the states leading in the use of wind are California, Minnesota, Iowa and Texas. But projects are popping up in other states like Kansas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin too. 

Technology has reduced the cost of wind generation 80 percent, from 38 cents per kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to a current range of 3 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Alliant Energy, which is involved in the construction of the Top of Iowa Wind Farm, either owns or purchases the output from seven wind farms in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Alliant is also assisting in the construction of a new wind farm project in Topeka, Kansas, with the help of IBEW members. In St. Louis, Local 1439 Business Manager Leo Beishir said he welcomes more wind farms.

It seems to be good work, Beishir said. That wind is just going to waste anyway.

Sign welcoming visitors to the Cerro Gordo Wind Farm, which spans more than 10 square miles. Because the rotor blades are more than 100 feet from the ground at the bottom of their swing, farmland directly under wind turbines can be cultivated or grazed by animals.

The periodical Wind Power Monthly says wind power is having its best year ever, thanks in part to a federal tax credit. The United States is expected to develop 2,000 megawatts by the end of the year, bringing total capacity to more than 4,500 megawatts. The tax credit provides 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity generated by a wind plant during its first 10 years of operation. The tax credit is due to expire at the end of the year but environmental and energy groups are working to extend it another five years.

Although wind is now one of the best options for getting new generation on line fast, President Bush has proposed a 50 percent cut on wind research.
Increasingly, renewable energy sources like wind, solar and biomass are becoming more than just earth-friendly alternatives to other forms of energy. They are becoming state mandates. In New York, Gov. George Pataki ordered that by the year 2010, state buildings must obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy. And Minnesota is also considering making renewable energy a requirement.

Its part of the whole solution, said Local 949, Burnsville, Minnesota, Business Representative Ray Turner. We still need more power plants but we look forward to integrating the system.

September 2001 IBEW Journal