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Billion dollar extension cords

Comparing these two maps shows one of the biggest obstacles for the wind industry. The best sources of wind power are located far away from consumers. Winds blow here:

Power gets consumed where people live. Mostly that’s in the big urban centers. See population density map below.

Notice that the most profitable wind areas are in the geographic center of the country whereas the population centers are largely coastal. To be a bit more specific, Wiki lists the population of the New York metro area as something over 22 million. That’s about as many people as the combined total populations of all the best wind producing states except Texas and Minnesota:

Wyoming – 500,000
South Dakota – 824,000
North Dakota – 684,000
Iowa – 3,000,000
Nebraska – 1,000,000
Montana – 1,000,000
Kansas – 2,900,000
Colorado – 5,100,000
New Mexico – 2,000,000
Oklahoma – 3,800,000

Furthermore, Texas is far more urban than you might expect, so their wind production is not really available to be exported. The best Minnesota wind field is near some relatively large urban centers. If I were looking for a place to put some windmills, I might look there first. Winter weather conditions can challenge wind turbines, but honestly, how much winter could a place like Minnesota really have?

All this means that supplying wind power to the grid in quantities big enough to impact the nation’s electric power situation will require lots of big transmission lines all over the Midwest. A round number for thinking about costs for big transmission lines in open, flat, uninhabited farm country is a million dollars per mile.

But that number is elastic in a big way. The 500 kV transmission line being constructed to support two new nuclear units in Georgia is currently estimated at $123 million for a 50-mile line (or $2.5 million per mile). A 500 kV line of similar length (45 miles) in New Jersey is expected to cost $1.26 billion (or $25 million per mile).

If a transmission line crosses mountainous terrain, urban areas, bodies of water, or an area that requires burial, capital costs could be far more. Putting in a few thousand miles of transmission lines to connect wind resources to the population centers adds enormously to the cost of the power. So, while the wind is free, filtering electricity out of it and shipping it to a big city won’t be cheap.

Finally, there’s a fairness issue beckoning for attention here. There are a few spots in the east where industrial scale wind power has been attempted, such as Nantucket. Local opposition to wind farms has been fierce. It seems east coast liberals are all in favor of what they style as “renewable energy sources,” meaning wind farms, only finding locations for them is a burden “for thee but not for me.” How fair is it to consume millions of acres of Midwestern territory with wind farms and transmission line rights of way to supply power to the coastal population centers? Another question: How fair is it for folks in the Midwest to pay federal taxes that get recycled into energy projects that buy up their countryside for the benefit of another region of the country?

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