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Wind generators stir interest among farmers

(Tuesday, March 4, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Teresa Halvorsen, Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman: Windmills remain a familiar sight along Iowa's country roads, but never before have they offered farmers and rural communities the potential for economic growth.

Unlike the rusted windmills seen in century-old farmsteads, the three wind generators on the Miller family farm south of Britt tower 80 feet above the treetops.

Each generator is equipped with three 24-foot-high blades that move in effortless circles under the force of the dense winter winds.

Brothers Jim and Skip Miller have kept the wind generators running to fulfill a dream of their father, Monty, who passed away in 1996.

"It was always something he wanted to do," Jim said. "Basically, they put them up to fund the grandkids¹ college. With the proceeds, my mom and dad bought savings bonds for their grandchildren."

The Millers bought the slightly used wind generators in 1994.

"They were taking them down in Palm Springs at the time and replacing them with larger, more modern generators," Jim explained.

"At that time, and it's still true, what they will pay you for your power will not pay for a new generator, so we opted to go with used ones," he said.

The windmills each generate up to 65 kilowatts of electricity with ideal wind speeds. The farm uses the electricity to power two houses, a golf cart shop and grain dryers during the harvest season.

Alliant Energy purchases any extra electricity produced by the Millers' wind generators.

Instead of paying an electric bill, Jim's mom, Mildred, receives a monthly check from Alliant.

"We've only had two months when we didn't produce enough for our usage," Jim said.

Growing industry

Interest in wind power is growing among Iowa farmers. More than 150 people traveled to Algona last week to learn about wind-energy opportunities.

Keith Kutz, administrative specialist with the Iowa Energy Center in Ames, told the attendees that Iowa has the capacity and the resources to build more wind generators.

Iowa's rank as the 10th windiest state in the nation has attracted several large-scale "wind farms" to northern Iowa. Kutz said north-central and northwest Iowa boast the state's highest wind speeds, averaging about 15 to 18 miles per hour.

"There are very few places in Iowa where you can't put a wind terminal and make it go. It's just a question of how long it's going to take to pay back your investment," Kutz said.

"The wind-farm developers are interested in getting their investment paid back as quickly as possible, so they are initially locating their wind terminals in the best wind areas, and that's north-central and northwest Iowa," he said.

These large wind farms benefit both landowners and their local communities, said Tanya Olsen, production technician for FPL Energy.

The Florida-based FPL Energy has built a 200-generator wind farm in Hancock County and a 148-generator wind farm in Cerro Gordo County.

The Hancock County wind farm, located east of the Millers' farm, produces enough electricity to power 40,000 homes. The company sells the electricity wholesale to Alliant.

Olsen said FPL Energy arranged leasing agreements with 60 landowners in the two counties to place the wind generators on their land.

While a landowner could make about $400 per acre growing row crops, FPL Energy pays them four times as much for the one-third of an acre the wind generator occupies, Olsen said.

"It's just another crop for them. They just farm around it," Olsen said.

In Buena Vista County, a wind farm with 232 generators has brought $254,000 in tax revenues since the generators were built in 1998, said Ted Van Grootheest, the county assessor.

He said the taxes paid on one wind tower will equal the taxes paid on 200 acres of Buena Vista County farmland once tax abatements end.

Energy policy

Tom Wind, a wind energy consultant from Jefferson, said public policies have spurred the construction of wind generators in Iowa.

In 1990, the Iowa legislature passed a renewable energy law that requires all utilities to offer "green" power, or power generated from renewable sources, to their customers.

"There would be no big wind farms if it were not mandated in Iowa," Wind said. Iowa ranks third nationally in wind-powered electric generation, behind California and Texas.

However, he said more policy changes are needed to grow Iowa¹s wind-energy industry, because it¹s becoming more difficult to find customers willing to pay more for "green" power.

The Millers are thinking about adding a couple wind generators to their collection if the government provides more incentives.

³We always cuss the wind around here. Whatever job you are doing, it seems like the wind always impairs it a little," Jim said. "Now, we can put up with that wind a little easier."