"I count over a hundred white wind towers," reports writer Jim Chiles, "standing in widely spaced rows, each more than 200 feet high and looming over hills that are green with corn, alfalfa and soybean crops." Chiles stands on Buffalo Ridge in Minnesota and is witnessing what some people think will be a big part of America's energy future.
During the past five years, the nation's biggest wind farms have all been going up along this ridge, which stretches more than 100 miles from Storm Lake, Iowa, through Lake Benton, Minnesota. Compared to their California cousins of the 1980s, the 600 wind turbines on Buffalo Ridge represent a new generation of wind-energy technology: computer-controlled, easy to erect, large and reliable. The boom in Midwestern wind power is fueled not just by this new technology, but also by a curious assemblage of farmers, entrepreneurs, politicians, environmentalists and utility executives.
"We were an unholy alliance," says Jim Nichols, referring to one example where environmentalists and a utility cut an unusual agreement. The Northern States Power Company (NSP) was in desperate need of legislative permission to store spent radioactive fuel inside massive containers called "dry casks." Former state senator Nichols lined up support at the state legislature to ensure that NSP would "earn" those casks by committing to 1,425 megawatts of wind power, which represents about half the output of a nuclear power plant.
A question remains whether wind itself will be constant enough for wind energy to provide more than a percent or two of America's electricity. But Nichols and others believe that the future of wind power isn't so much predicted as persuaded. Only time will tell.