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Windy or Not, Here We Come
Without big winds, Wisconsin focuses on turbine production

When it comes to wind, Wisconsin blows.

As interest in alternative energies grows nationwide, Midwest states are moving to get in on new economic potential. But while Wisconsin’s rolling glacial landscape proves attractive to Iowa flatlanders, it’s a bust for wind.

According to University of Wisconsin-Madison energy and environmental economist Richard Shaten, the maximum potential for Wisconsin’s wind output is just 5,000 megawatts of wind if turbines spin 30 percent of the time. “The wind in Wisconsin does not blow hard enough or consistently enough,” Shaten says.

At best, according to Shaten, wind power could account for 8 percent of energy in Wisconsin. According to the wind energy resource potential map from the U.S. Department of Energy website, the state’s best winds are about a level three, making them suitable for future technology. Most of the state, however, is level two, or only marginal. The state’s flatter counterparts – Iowa and the Dakotas – are levels three and four and thus more suitable for current turbines.

Shaten has not lost hope for the state’s economic potential though. The breeze instead of gust problem isn’t the end of the revenue stream. He hopes instead the state will find its manufacturing roots and emphasize wind turbine production rather than operation.

Many companies in Wisconsin are already making the four major components of a wind turbine – the tower, base, generator and gear box, and blades. However, several companies in the state are producing parts for small wind systems, which are not where the biggest potential lies.

Large wind turbines produce much more blow for the dough. “Small wind turbines are fine, but much more expensive per amount of wind generated. $1 will produce more energy if invested in large wind turbines,” explains Doug Reinemann, a biological systems engineer.

If the idea of large wind turbines hasn’t blown you away yet, consider this: When the wind spins the turbine blades, the spinning causes the generator to rotate, which creates electricity. The higher the blades are in the air (i.e., the larger the turbine), the faster and less turbulent the wind is, which translates into more energy captured. Raising a turbine base just 40 feet higher can mean 25 percent more energy with just a 10 percent additional cost, according to

However, large wind turbines can be a little too conspicuous for humans sometimes. Shaten says it would take a field of 500 large turbines to generate enough energy to replace just one coal plant, creating a plethora of potential eyesores on a flat landscape.

What large wind farms lack in discretion, however, they make up in sustainability. Clean Wisconsin staff scientist Peter Taglia notes that turbine fields can still be used for crops without disturbing the farming or damaging the landscape. “Wind turbines last about 20 to 30 years, and then it costs some money to take them down, but the landscape goes back exactly the way it was; there is no permanent destruction,” he says.

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