Indiana Wind Farm Provides Glimpse of Zero-Emission Future

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FuelBlazing_icon Standing under a bright midday sun in central Indiana with nothing but cornfields on every side, it’s easy to be optimistic about our country’s energy and automotive future. In the midst of these fields, rising from the ground like the legs of a “Star Wars” Imperial Walker, are dozens of wind turbines, their blades lazily slicing the crisp Midwestern breeze.

Why are these windmills – impressive as they are – important enough to land on the pages of Cars.com? Think about it this way: Nissan proudly trumpets its new all-electric Leaf as a “zero emissions” vehicle. While this is technically correct, it only refers to the product itself, not the power it needs to move.

As electric vehicles from numerous automakers deploy across the U.S. and the world, they will be largely drawing their power from coal-fired power plants and contributing to the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change (albeit not as badly as their gas-powered counterparts).

Thus, we find ourselves in search of “clean energy,” be it solar, biomass or, in this case, wind. The goal is to one day not only drive electric, hydrogen and alt-fuel cars but to power them from renewable, carbon-free resources.

These particular wind turbines were built and are operated by Horizon Wind Energy, a Houston-based renewable energy company. The 121 turbines comprise Phase I of the Meadow Lake Wind Farm in White County, Ind., powering the equivalent of 60,000 homes.

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“There are five things we look at when deciding where to build a wind farm,” Horizon project manager Jeffrey Nemeth told me earlier that day. “You need wind, access to transmission lines, community support, electricity demand and land — preferably agricultural.”

Horizon pays farmers $4,000 to $8,000 per year to use their land, building turbines and access roads through the fields. Another 66 turbines are scheduled to go online in the next three weeks, and the company will have all four phases of the project completed by October. The full 303 turbines will generate somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 megawatts, enough to power 300,000 homes.

What would happen if a major portion of those 300,000 households decided to buy an electric vehicle in late 2010?

“They would increase demand for electricity, that’s for sure,” said Nemeth, who doesn’t need to note that the power needs of an EV are equivalent to getting another small home. “But it’s quicker to build a wind farm than a coal plant, so wind developers would actually love that.”

I certainly can’t argue the point. I sometimes drive along Interstate 65 when I go back home to Ohio, and it was on one of those trips when I first drove past the towering blades spinning in the dark. From my perspective, Meadow Lake Phase I basically went up overnight. Furthermore, while wind power costs more upfront, there is no input cost. You don’t have to spend money tearing apart West Virginia mountaintops and delivering coal. The wind farms tend to recoup their cost in three to 10 years, depending on the wind source, Nemeth said.

“The real key is transmission lines and storage. If someone figures out a way to store electricity efficiently and inexpensively, they’ll be an instant billionaire,” said Nemeth.

Here again, is an area where wind energy and electric vehicles might enjoy a symbiosis.

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Denmark, which gets 20% of its power from wind, has been experimenting with vehicle-to-grid technology on the island of Bornholm. The idea is to use car batteries as storage units for wind-generated electricity when the wind is blowing strong, saving it for homes and businesses as needed. General Motors has touted this capability in promoting its upcoming Volt plug-in hybrid. Using this method, Bornholm’s 40,000 residents could get an estimated 50% of their electric needs from wind energy. There are plans to drastically scale up America’s use of wind power, but political support is key, according to Nemeth, who thinks a national renewable energy standard would “help make a huge push for wind and solar possible.”

Whereas gathering support for building wind turbines has been difficult in places like Cape Cod (where legal turmoil held up the proposed off-shore wind farm for almost a decade), the residents of White County have been almost uniformly enthusiastic.

Gary Hendryx, a member of the County Council and owner of the Top Notch Bar in Brookston, has been working with Horizon on the Meadow Lake Wind Farm since the beginning of the project. He says Horizon has been great for the community, putting extra money in farmers’ pockets and creating 450 construction jobs.

“I’d say 90% of the community was on board at first,” Hendryx said. “Of that 10% that were unhappy, probably eight to nine now wish they had turbines on their property.”

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For Nemeth, it’s about a larger societal shift and changing the way people think about energy, from their light bulbs to their vehicles.

“It’s an American mentality to have your own car, and we associate that with freedom,” said Nemeth. “I’ll be the first to admit, my first car was a 1973 AMC Hornet, and I’ve always liked my fast cars. I even own two motorcycles.”

Nemeth said he’d be interested in an extended-range vehicle like the Chevy Volt that could save him a lot of cash on his epic commute home to Illinois, but if he were to buy that car tomorrow, he would still plug into an Indiana grid that runs 97% on fossil fuels and mostly coal, according to the Energy Information Administration. The state’s total net electricity generation is around 9,142 megawatt-hours; at full capacity, Meadow Lake will be capable of about 500 MWh.

Still, you have to start somewhere, right? And for Brookston the wind farm has become an anchor for the community.

“I wake up every morning and watch 10 of them from the window of my house,” Hendryx says of the turbines. “I think they just look brilliant.”

Cars.com photographs by Ian Merritt

Comments 

N Tesla

But there isn't a zero carbon footprint for turbines.

No matter how much energy can be generated by wind there always needs to be the same amount of energy available by conventional generating methods to take up the slack when the wind isn't blowing or is blowing too fast.

And that means that coal/gas/oil/nuclear plants are sitting on stand by, which means burning fuel be ready to flip the switch at a moments notice. And this is the most inefficient use of fossil fuels since they are producing much less power or no power for the carbon being released.

Yes, the future is the wind and the sun. But the technologies that we all need more perfected we can only use clean energy. And technologies used to build cars must evolve. At present they are too expensive.

Zack

This is not news. Nice plug for Horizon, though. You incorrectly state Indiana's generation in megawatt hours - that's not accurate. Capacity is simply megawatts. That goes for the wind farm too. Megawatt hours is the measure of electricity delivered, not capacity.

Belly

Zack you are on a role no? Go to the EIA website:

http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/st_profiles/e_profiles_sum.html

They list state electricity profile, with net generation in megawatthours.

Lawrence Weisdorn

I thought there was a lot of wind power at night. So the cars would be charging overnight from surplus energy.

Zack

Belly, nice try, but you're no Thomas Edison. Your table shows net generation of nearly 130,000,000 megawatt hours for Indiana, proving that the original posting is incorrect (for stating the total net generation for Indiana at 9,142 megawatt hours). Your table also shows capacity for each state in megawatts, which was my point. Thanks for proving it. Now I'll try to explain it in a way you might understand. You take all the generation plants in Indiana, including the 500 megawatt wind farm, and it adds up to 9,142 megawatts - that's the generation capacity. If all those plants run at capacity for one hour, they generate 9,142 megawatt hours. Over the course of a year they generate 130,000,000 megawatt hours of electricity. Capacity is expressed in megawatts - electricity sales in megawatt hours.
Lawrence, you are correct about lots of wind at night. Just ask Belly.

Zack

FYI, to clarify, I used the 9,142 megawatt number just as example. The actual generation capacity in Indiana in Belly's table is 27,000 mw, which you would need to crank out the huge number of mwhs in the chart.

Belly

Yeah Zack and you're a light bulb. Can't handle the truth?

The chart says what it says - net generation in megawatt hours, not generation capacity, just as the article says. The article uses the correct units.

Don't try so hard to be a smartass when you don't know what you are talking about.

Zack

Wrong again. You don't like being corrected do you?

Belly

Wrong about what Zack? Good comeback there...

Justin

Did they make the metal for the turbines with wind power?

greg

Tesla not Edison pushed the envelope on electricity... He blew Edison out of the water with his forward thinking, but, much of the time eccentric..

Mike

A lot of these seem to be in the midwest with lots of tornados. I wonder if these things can withstand that.

Paul

Why are some of you so resistant to change? Some of these comments are good questions, but understand the technology will only get better with the real world as a proving ground. These wind farms can evolve not that we actually are using them. Denmark's wind farm contributes 20% of it's nations electricity, that is encouraging!


Justin and N Tesla, i hear of a process that you can crap metal right out of your ass. Be realistic, to expect a 0 carbon footprint is ignorant.

Also, everyone should look at this as usable new jobs for people. These new green industries create new job opportunities right here in the USA.

don sutton

about that, if the turbines was made with wind energy? what i wnat to know is, how much of them are made out of recycled metals?

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