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Wind farms are changing Indiana’s rural landscape

Indiana Correspondent

BROOKSTON, Ind. — Indiana has become a major player in harvesting wind; according to the American Wind Energy Assoc., Indiana ranked second in 2009 in the growth of large-scale wind development, trailing only Texas. In 2008, Indiana was first nationally.

Last year Indiana installed enough wind turbines to generate 905 megawatts of power; Texas installed 2,300 megawatts. Nationally, some 10,000 megawatts of wind-generated electricity was installed, bringing the total to 35,000 megawatts.

There are five privately developed wind farms in Indiana and the 905 megawatts installed last year is enough to provide electricity for 271,500 homes.

One of those wind farms has sprouted on the flat prairie landscape around Brookston, just north of Lafayette. The first phase of Meadow Lake Wind Farm went online in November and includes 121 wind turbines, each of them nearly 400 feet tall. Peter Park, project manager for Houston, Texas-based Horizon Wind Energy, said each turbine is 260-feet tall from the base of the tower to the hub and another 127 feet to the tip of its three-bladed rotor.

In the next three phases, another 400 wind turbines will be added to the landscape of White, Benton and Jasper counties. Each 1.65 megawatt turbine generates enough electricity to power 500 Indiana homes. The total output of the Meadow Lake Wind Farm is enough to power 60,000 homes.

Horizon was founded in 1998 and is owned by EDP Renovaveis S.A. of Portugal, the third-largest wind energy company in the United States with 25 wind farms. It also has wind farms in Europe and Brazil.

“The market for wind energy works for us in Indiana,” said Park, adding the company didn’t have to build a transmission line in order to connect to the existing grid. That’s a huge benefit because it costs $1 million to build a mile of transmission line.

In the middle of Meadow Lake Wind Farm is an existing substation owned by AEP, which allowed Horizon to build its substation next door and connect to the AEP grid. Horizon also has built and improved roads throughout White County in order to get parts and equipment to work sites. It has been a massive undertaking. Each turbine costs between $1.8 million and $2 million to build.

“There is a huge upfront cost on something like this, but once you get it going, you can sit back and wait for the money to come in,” said Park. “If you put them in the right place, they just go.”

Park has been a fixture around Brookston for three years, meeting with farmers and explaining what wind energy is and how it will benefit farmers and the county. Unlike wide open places like Wyoming where Park said he needed to talk to just one or two farmers to build a wind farm because of extensive land holdings there, he’s had to talk to hundreds of farmers in White County. “White County has been phenomenal for us,” said Park.

He added that farmers have come to embrace the project because it uses minimal land (about three-quarters of an acre) and generates money for land owners. Of the 26,000 acres in the wind farm, only about 250 acres have been taken out of production by the 121 turbines.

Bill Whitlock, director of development for Horizon’s Great Lakes Office in Bloomington, Ill., said that after a lot of initial questions, people began signing up.

“It took three years of meetings with lots of folks in their homes, but they came to like the idea of emission-free, homegrown energy,” said Whitlock. In fact, Whitlock said landowners have begun describing it as their 401K retirement plan.

“Every three months, they get a check,” said Whitlock. Over the course of a year, the money could total anywhere from $5,000-$10,000 or more, depending on how many turbines are on their property.

The short-term inconvenience is that much of the landscape around the wind farm becomes a construction zone. More than 450 construction workers were involved in Phase 1.

But, said Park, the short-term inconvenience is replaced by long-term gain.

On a recent tour of the 10-miles by six-miles wind farm, Park was accompanied by Gary Freymiller, director of Wiser Indiana, a public policy group dedicated to promoting alternative energy, and Kelly Kepner, program assistant for the Purdue University Extension Service in Benton County. They were looking for a site for an information center to cater to visitors interested in learning more about wind energy and Meadow Lake Wind Farm.

One possible location was along Interstate 65 at the U.S. 231 exit. An abandoned building there could be redeveloped, and while no wind turbines are near it, within the next year, a tower is to be built directly across from the site.

“We view this as a hedge against fossil fuel costs,” said Freymiller. “Energy companies are using this (wind farms) as part of their overall utility portfolio.”

Park agreed, saying that companies like AEP and NIPSCO haven’t viewed wind farms as competitors but as an energy source that complements what they already do. But it’s not just west central Indiana that’s drawing the attention of wind energy companies. The potential for a wind farm in southern LaPorte County near LaCrosse is being studied by Trade Wind Energy of Lenexa, Kan., said development manager Duane Enger.

Two 200-foot test towers have been erected near LaCrosse to collect wind data to see if construction is feasible. The towers, about 5.5 miles apart just off Indiana 8, have been up for a year, but another year’s worth of data is needed, said Enger.

One of the test towers is on property owned by Paul Malecki, who welcomed Trade Wind. “What’s exciting about Indiana is the demand for renewable energy,” said Enger. “Not only does Indiana have the resources to make it feasible, but it also has the infrastructure.”

While the success of wind energy development in White and Benton counties doesn’t translate directly to LaPorte County, Enger said he’s encouraged.

“There are broad expanses of open land with access to transmission lines that make the project feasible in La Porte County,” he said.

While data isn’t complete, Enger said it appears there is less wind in LaPorte County, which means Trade Wind would most likely have to construct taller towers. The towers in White County are 260 feet tall and the ones for the planned LaCrosse Farms wind project would have to be 300 feet tall, Enger said. “The higher you reach, the more efficiently you can harvest the wind.”

If construction moves ahead in LaPorte County, it would be for a 150 megawatt wind farm, which would call for between 70-100 towers. Enger said wind offers stability in energy prices. As the price of coal and natural gas goes up, so do energy prices. But for a wind farm, once the initial investment is made, there is no fluctuation. The turbines operate with the wind, which is free.

“Everyone we’ve talked to is excited about the project,” said Enger, who added that the success in White County has made it easier to explain the project to LaPorte County residents. “People seem enthusiastic.”