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Midwest farmers harvest bumper crop of wind power
(CNN) -- Considering how much money farmers in Iowa and Minnesota make on power-generating wind turbines, their corn and soybean crops look like peanuts.
Once a struggling renewable energy supply that survived only through government protection, wind energy technology has taken off, in some cases producing electricity more economically than fossil fuels.
In recent years, wind farms have sprung up along the Buffalo Ridge, a long gentle prominence that straddles the two states and breaks the expansive Midwestern flats, a geographical anomaly that gives rise to strong, steady winds.
Arnold Kholhede has worked the Iowa soil since he left the Marines after World War II. He surprised neighbors in Storm Lake several years ago when he added five wind turbines to his farm.
'It's a really profitable venture'
"It just looked like a real good second income for one thing. They're good for the environment. There's no pollution from them whatsoever. And we have some real good winds around here," he said.
Kholhede earns up to $10,000 a year by leasing five small plots to a utility company as sites for the turbines. The same land might produce a corn crop worth little more than $100.
"Judging from that, you see it's a really profitable venture," Kholhede said.
The windmills weather blizzards, lightning strikes and occasional wind droughts. The summer months are the poorest, Kholhede said.
'Wind Capital of the World'
As the winds pick up in the autumn, the nearby town of Alta hosts a wind festival, as does Lake Benton on the Minnesota side of Buffalo Ridge, which dubs itself the "Wind Capital of the World."
"It's been a real boon to the community," said Marlin Thompson, part-time mayor of Lake Benton, which developed a large wind farm in the late 1990s.
"Not only from the standpoint of employment, which is important in small communities, but also from the standpoint of tourism."
The downtown features a special wind power intersection, with colorful wind power blades jutting from the cement. Buses regularly zoom out to the wind farms, where school children and tourists gawk at turbine towers standing higher than 200 feet, with blade spans as long as a mid-sized commercial jet.
Sparing coal, greenhouse gases
Kholhede's turbines are among hundreds that comprise the Storm Lake generating facility, the single largest wind power project in the world, according to Enron Wind Corp., which developed the Storm Lake and Lake Benton wind farms.
The installation provides enough electricity to supply almost 200,000 Midwesterners, saving 300,000 tons of coal and 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, Enron said.
Wind power has become increasingly popular because of the steady reduction in cost. Across the nation, wind power production rose 29 percent between 1998 and 1999, according to World Watch Institute, which monitors environmental trends.
And since the early 1980s, the price per kilowatt-hour has plummeted more than 80 percent, said Christine Real de Azua, spokesperson for the America Wind Energy Association.
"The new larger turbines, in the same amount of space, are taller and more powerful, and can maximize output, even with changes in wind speed and intensity," she said.
Reckoning with 'knotheads'
For years, state and federal incentives encouraged utilities to procure a percentage of their power from alternative energy sources. But taking into account the expense of building new power plants, wind energy is competitive or actually cheaper than fossil fuels, Real de Azua said.
In Minnesota, one regional utility put out bids to generate electricity from all sources, without a portion set aside for renewables.
"One of the winners of the bid a local company that combined wind energy supplemented with natural gas. That's pretty impressive," Real de Azua said.
But some longtime residents of Storm Lake remain wary of the high-tech turbine towers.
"We've had one old knothead in town here that thinks we're the ones causing all the winds," Kholhede said.
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