QUESTION: Why don’t we have more wind generators like the two big ones west of Cashton?
ANSWER: Wisconsin has 14 sites with wind generators. The two just west of Cashton were installed in 2012. The latest is the 49-tower Quilt Block array in Lafayette County west of Darlington owned by Dairyland Power that started operations in 2017. Traveling on Hwy. 18, the old Military Road that runs from Prairie du Chien to Madison, you can spot 20 wind towers near Montfort in Iowa County. Those turbines went online in 2001.
The largest array, 90 towers, is in Columbia County, halfway between Portage and Beaver Dam, easily witnessed when motoring on Hwy. 33. It’s called the Glacier Hills Wind Farm owned by WE Energies. Glacier Hills can churn out 162 megawatts of electricity, sufficient to power 45,000 homes. Another large facility is the Blue Sky Green Field array in Fond du Lac County, also owned by WE Energies, and sporting 88 wind turbines.
Modern wind turbine generators are sophisticated, high-tech machines designed to acquire the energy of the wind and convert it into electricity. A turbine’s blades capture the wind and rotate an internal shaft connected to a gearbox spinning a generator to produce electricity. When a wire is moved through a magnetic field, current flows on that wire. It’s called electromagnetic induction and is the basis of all electric generators.
We all want sources of electricity that are plentiful, cheap and non-polluting. Unfortunately, when it comes to energy production, there is no free lunch. All energy sources have advantages and disadvantages, good points and bad points. Many factors must be considered: availability, effect on the environment, cost, reliability, site selection and transmission capability. Using the wind has enticing advantages. Wind power is clean without polluting byproducts.
But it certainly is not free. If there were potent advantages to wind power, we would be using more of it. Since the wind does not blow all the time, wind power does not have the reliability associated with coal, nuclear or natural gas. Remember, we don’t have any way to store appreciable amounts of electricity. When it is generated, it must be used immediately.
Some people oppose wind power. The towers can be ugly and noisy. There is concern about bird strikes and television reception interference. Wind generators also require a lot of acreage and must be placed in regions where the wind blows on a steady basis. Most wind generators need at least a 13-mph wind speed. The towers and generators use a lot of steel and aluminum, all of which requires mining and processing, which mean more pollution. Also, the generators depend on considerable labor-intensive maintenance.
Something called “shadow flicker effect” is caused by the shadows given off by the wind turbines when they are in full rotating motion. This is due to the light escaping through the gaps between the blades, causing some negative effects to people living in homes in the shadows of newly built wind turbines. People experience the flicker of shadows through their windows at various times of the day, especially when the sun is near the horizon. This can become very annoying because the shadow flicker can cause strains in vision or even headaches to the people who are affected.
Most of the Wisconsin wind generators are made by the Vestas Corporation in Denmark. They are 400 feet from ground level to the highest blade tip. You may have seen turbine blades transported on our highways. Vestas, the world’s leading manufacturer, has wind turbines in 76 countries.
Landowners, generally farmers, get a fairly hefty paycheck from the power companies. Contracts vary, of course, but most pay out a lease for development rights for the land, usually a three to five year deal. A ballpark figure is $4,000 to $6,000 per year per turbine. Thereafter, the royalties vary from three to five percent of gross sales.
Wind power has its place. It should be part of the mix. Perhaps Texas placed too much reliance of wind during the recent big freeze in February 2021. But in the foreseeable future, we will get a sizable fraction of our electricity from wind. Presently, the total installed wind capacity in the entire U.S. gives us about seven percent of our needs.
Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.