Art Cullen

Cut Carbon, Build Heartland

When it comes to windpower, we ain’t seen nothing yet — or so says famed environmental economist Lester Brown, founder of Worldwatch and the Earth Policy Institute. Brown is one of those economists that production agriculture loves to hate, but his analysis of wind potential should be cheered by Plains States dwellers interested in a wealthier, healthier region.

Brown recently authored a book entitled Plan B 4.0 in which he calls for an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. That’s a country mile beyond the 20% reduction that the US House calls for in its climate bill, which is considered radical by the much of the right wing, which considers such thinking in terms of a “national energy tax.”

Brown says we can and will reduce emissions by that much — and China might beat us to the punch. This is a matter of the United States leading in the energy development market, rather than letting China beat us to it.

He notes that without much government assistance, carbon emissions dropped by 9% over the past two years, thanks in large part to several new wind farms, including another new one in our Northwest Iowa neighborhood, coming on-line. Last year 102 wind farms cropped up, the equivalent of eight coal-fired power plants. Another 100 are under construction this year — even after the economic crash. The pace of construction is likely to increase once a climate bill passes and the wind energy production tax credit is made permanent.

It can take up to 10 years to build a coal plant. It takes about a year to get a wind farm running. Once turning, the costs are lower than operating with coal because there is no feedstock required — the wind is free.

If the contract is written right, farmland owners can make $3,000 per turbine annually for an acre of land. A turbine near Storm Lake can generate $300,000 worth of electricity per year, while an acre of corn will produce $960 worth of ethanol. It’s fairly easy to see where the power efficiency is.

China is doubling its expansion of wind farms every year for that precise reason. The US might not be able to point at India or China as the world’s worst air polluters anymore. China is building six mega windfarms that will eventually produce as much electricity as the entire world generated in 2008, according to Brown. China is already the world leader in solar energy deployment.

That is stunning, but Brown goes on.

“Wind turbines can be mass-produced on assembly lines, much as the B-24 bombers were in World War II at Ford’s massive Willow Run assembly plant in Michigan. Indeed, the idled capacity in the US automobile industry is sufficient to produce all the world needs to reach the Plan B global goal. Not only do these plants exist, but there are skilled workers in these communities eager to return to work,” Brown writes.

It will take $4.5 trillion to build enough wind turbines to power the United States at 3,000 gigawatts (40% of world energy needs), or $409 billion per year. By 2016, oil and gas capital expenditures are expected to reach $1 trillion per year. And, with that much wind energy online, the oft-cited fear of wind not providing a stable energy supply goes moot. If the wind isn’t blowing around Storm Lake, it will be in North Dakota or eastern Montana.

“The structure of the world energy economy is not just changing, it is changing fast,” Brown says.

In many of the climate arguments we are debating with yesterday’s facts. Mid American Energy’s turbines just erected near Schaller, Iowa, are twice as productive, and thus less costly to operate, than the first-generation turbines around Storm Lake and Alta, Iowa. The next generation will be even more efficient. If there was no money in wind, we doubt that Warren Buffet’s energy company would be investing so heavily in it.

It is time that the rest of the nation moves the debate forward. Even T. Boone Pickens, the man who brought down John Kerry in his presidential campaign, staked his fortune on building wind farms from Texas to the High Plains until he ran out of financing with the economic crash last fall.

New manufacturing activities and new sources of steady revenue can flow to the Great Plains — from Texas to Kansas to North Dakota — through a climate bill that expands renewable energy production. Sometimes it takes a critic like Brown to get us to see it.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times, in which this appeared. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2009

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