Vehicles in this northwest Missouri farm community are likely to be pickup trucks, and "green" is the color of a John Deere tractor. But when it comes to alternative energy, little Rock Port - population about 1,400 - is a pioneer: it's the site of a wind farm that's projected to generate more electricity than the town uses in a year.
Four 250-foot wind turbines on the town's western bluffs are the source of Rock Port's alt-energy designation. The massive turbines linked to the city-owned utility were installed early this year by St. Louis-based Wind Capital Group, with financing from Deere & Co., the world's biggest manufacturer of farm equipment.
"We are always going to be agriculture-based. We are always going to be rural," said Eric Chamberlain, project manager for the Loess Hills Wind Farm. "But there are things we can do certainly, and we're doing it.
"I mean, when you remove your carbon footprint for the entire town for electricity production, that's a pretty big deal."
The wind turbines in Rock Port are estimated to generate about 16 million kilowatt hours of energy a year, or about 3 million more than what Rock Port typically uses. That's thanks to northwest Missouri gusts that put the region, where Wind Capital has three other, larger wind farms, among the windiest parts of Missouri, which ranks 20th in the nation in terms of wind potential.
Wind energy has been gaining momentum in the U.S., growing by 45 percent last year and now providing about 1 percent of the nation's energy, according to AWEA. A study from the Energy Department and the industry found that wind could generate 20 percent of the nation's electricity by 2030.
Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens has been promoting his plan for erecting turbines in the Midwest and asked Congress this week to "clear the path" for his plan to boost use of wind and natural gas.
During all this growth the industry has come under attack from environmentalists and others who have protested wind turbines from Massachusetts to California, complaining that the turbines spoil the view and threaten bats, migrating birds and other wildlife.
Rock Port's turbines so far have not encountered opposition and have been churning fairly regularly, says Chamberlain, a fifth-generation Rock Port resident whose pickup's license plate is "WND-CZR."
But that doesn't mean Rock Port is off the electrical grid and getting all its electricity from wind.
In May, for example, on days the turbines didn't spin, the town pulled its energy from the rural electric cooperative. But for the overall month, the turbines provided 107 percent of the town's needs, Chamberlain said.
When the turbines churn out more than Rock Port needs, the remaining energy is sold by Deere, which owns the turbines, back to the Missouri Public Energy Pool. The pool then distributes it to its other 31 co-op members.
"We pull from the grid on a daily basis, but we also could be pushing energy away on that day too," Chamberlain said.
Eileen Irvine, project coordinator for Atchison County Development Corp., said the wind farm has been a source of pride for Rock Port, where incomes are largely from corn, soybeans and cattle.
"I would have thought this was pretty cutting edge for our little farming community," she said. "But now, it's fun to be a little ahead of the curve."
While residents won't see major cuts in their utility bills, the wind turbines have improved the town's tax base and officials hope they could attract business.
"We were hoping that people would notice we were here and might put some kind of distribution center or business here," Irvine said. "We think we kind of put ourselves on the map as a community that is forward-thinking."
Other cities like Hull, Mass., and Aspen, Colo., were earlier on the wind curve, but Rock Port's projected estimate of its turbines generating more wind than the town needs in a year appears to be a first for the U.S. Hull has been producing about 12 percent of its energy needs with two city-owned wind turbines since 2006.
And Aspen gets 75 percent of its energy from renewables, said Sally Spaulding, Aspen's director of community relations. Aspen also won the Department of Energy's Wind Power Pioneer Award for 2008 because it buys three times more wind power than any other public utility in the country on a per capita basis.
"We are seeing more cities working with their residents and businesses to purchase renewable energy," said Lori Bird, senior energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Chamberlain, who helped run his family's funeral home in town before Wind Capital hired him, said he gets frequent calls from people wanting to know how Rock Port did it. He tells them first there is a long list of requirements.
Aside from the obvious - wind - a town should also have its own utility and transmission lines. And, if Wind Capital had not already been in the area building the much larger nearby Cow Branch Wind Farm, Rock Port's turbines - with an estimated cost between $6 million and $8 million to install - would not have gone up.
Richard Oswald farms about 3 miles west of Rock Port and can see the turbines from his home. He says he's all for the wind farm.
"I read a lot of negativity about windmills. I know the oil people don't like them and the coal people don't like them, and I understand. But you have to have diverse sources of energy," said Oswald, 58. "We could use a lot more of them."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. By MARIA SUDEKUM FISHER, AP - Posted: 2008-07-24 13:13:15
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