June 12, 2024

Indiana’s strategic position boosts its wind power industry

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — With gusts from Lake Michigan and a strategic position between two electric grids, Indiana is one of the best states in the country for building wind turbines, experts say. And as a result, the industry is growing in the Hoosier state.

Between 2018 and 2019, Indiana’s wind power generation increased by 14%, according to a report from the American Wind Energy Association released last year, making it the seventh-fastest growing state in the country.

Currently, only 11 other states are producing more wind power than Indiana.

Wind power is expanding nationwide, as well. By 2050, wind could be supporting more than 600,000 jobs and saving consumers billions of dollars, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates. Currently, wind produces about 8% of the nation’s power.

But with the growth of the industry brings questions, too. How exactly does a wind turbine work? How much energy can it produce? And is it even a reliable source of power?

Wind turbines work much in the same way that hydroelectric power works: It uses kinetic energy to create electricity.

The motion of wind rotates the large blades of the turbine, which in turn rotates a rotor in the square box at the top of the turbine, called a nacelle.

A generator in the nacelle uses this motion to produce electricity, which then travels down the shaft of the turbine and into underground power lines, eventually making its way to collector lines along the electric grid. The grid, made up of more interlocking power lines, transmits the electricity to homes and businesses.

“It’s a simple concept, though it can produce quite a bit of energy,” said Jeff Danielson, central region director for the American Clean Power Association.

In the Midwest, a single wind turbine produces about 2.5 megawatts of energy, which can power about 2,500 homes. However, that’s an average: day-to-day power production can vary depending on how much wind is blowing at the moment.

Indiana is a desirable state for wind power companies, Danielson said, which may mean increased investment in the coming years. The northern part of the state benefits from gusts blowing off of Lake Michigan, but there’s another reason energy companies want more wind in Indiana: the state is also on the edge of two major electric grids.

Indiana makes up the eastern edge of the grid run by Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, which encompasses much of the Midwest. The Hoosier state also borders the PJM Interconnection grid, which supplies power for more than seven eastern states. It’s an advantageous position, Danielson said, as wind power could be used for both of those electric networks if needed.

At the end of 2020, Indiana wind farms had the capacity to produce about 3,000 megawatts of power, the 12th highest in the United States. But that’s just a small portion of what the state could be generating.

“Indiana has the capacity for a heck of a lot more,” said Nathan LaFrance, vice president of state policy for the Clean Grid Alliance. “Based on the amount of wind resources the state has, it has the capacity to install tens of thousands of megawatts.”

How does the amount of power produced from a wind turbine compare to that produced by natural gas, coal or other power resources?

Well, if you’re looking at just one wind turbine, it doesn’t make much of a match. Some coal plants can produce as much as 1,200 megawatts, meaning you’d need hundreds of wind turbines to take its place. But when you’re looking at entire farms of wind turbines spread throughout the country, it starts to have an impact.

Even so, there are benefits to using wind power over energy generated by fossil fuels.

One of the most obvious benefits, Danielson said, is its impact on the environment. Wind power doesn’t produce climate change-causing emissions like coal power does.

It also saves a “tremendous” amount of water, Danielson said, that is required by other energy sources for cooling. Power plants account for almost half of the water withdrawn in the United States every day.

“Compared to other generating sources,” Danielson said, “It’s the cleanest form of energy that you can generate.”

Wind power also doesn’t require nearly as much cost to upkeep. Once the wind turbine is installed, the cost for generating electricity is almost zero, LaFrance said, making it one of the cheapest forms of energy available.

Although cheap and clean, wind power comes with one significant downside: It uses vast amounts of land. Each 2.5-megawatt turbine, for example, requires multiple acres — and a farm that produces 1,000 megawatts requires hundreds.

“One of the largest downsides for wind is the land intensity,” LaFrance said. “As opposed to a fossil fuel plant, where you can produce hundreds of megawatts of electricity from a plant that consumes, land-wise, maybe a few dozen acres.”

Sometimes this can be a benefit for farmers and landowners who lease their land to wind companies, Danielson said. Although the wind farms require vast amounts of land, more than 90% of that can still be worked as farmland, meaning that farmers would lose relatively little yield in exchange for some added income.

Danielson characterizes this relationship as beneficial for farmers, wind companies and county governments. Still, some local officials disagree.

More than 30 counties in Indiana have passed ordinances restricting or prohibiting wind power in Indiana, in part out of fear that the projects will tank property values or that effects such as noise or flickering shadows will negatively affect the lives of those who live near them.

These ordinances have essentially halted wind growth in much of Indiana. In fact, LaFrance said all 3,000 MW of wind power generated in Indiana is coming from just six counties.

Wind companies and renewable energy advocates have said they want to see local governments open the door for more wind development in Indiana, especially as utility companies show an increased interest in clean energy.

Others, though, have questioned whether wind energy is reliable enough to depend on as a power source. After all, the wind can’t blow 24/7, and wind turbines will only generate electricity if the wind is blowing at least 5 to 8 mph.

At 11% nationwide, renewable energy still makes up a relatively small percent of electricity on the grid. But research has shown that the United States could probably source 50% of its power from renewables without any reliability issues, LaFrance said. In order to get any higher than that, however, there would need to be an improvement in battery technology to store energy when there’s excess.

Sourcing that much power from renewables may be a long way off. Until then, Danielson said, the future of wind energy in Indiana is still growing, along with the potential for renewable energy.

“I like to say the wind is at our back, the future is bright, and our batteries are charged up and ready to go,” Danielson said.