Trip report: Wisconsin to New Jersey and back

Posted on November 29, 2007. Filed under: Wind |

Off the Beaten Path in Wind Country
by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin
November 27, 2007

In late October I went on a nine-day, 2,500-mile-long road trip from Wisconsin to the East Coast. The pretext for this journey was the annual renewable energy marketing conference, held this year in Philadelphia. There, I was to give a talk on the State of Wisconsin’s plans to buy renewable electricity to offset part of its energy use.

There was also a conference in Ohio later that week that I wanted to attend. But the task of arranging this itinerary into a three-legged air journey turned out to be a logistical nightmare, so I decided to drive instead of fly.

Yes, it was a much slower trip, but more of the landscape is revealed traveling at 70 miles per hour on the ground instead of 370 mph at 30,000 feet. During the expedition I visited my brother in New Jersey and took photos of five wind energy projects: two in Illinois, two in Pennsylvania and one in Atlantic City, New Jersey.


I could not have picked a better day to view the Illinois projects, particularly Horizon Wind’s Twin Groves installation east of Bloomington. There, between the amber cornfields that stretched to the horizon and the azure sky above it stood 120 spinning wind turbines, efficiently converting 25 mph winds into enough electricity to energize all of Bloomington’s households that day.

Once inside the project zone, the turbines appeared to be everywhere, providing welcome movement and vertical relief against a backdrop consisting of two flat planes of color and the occasional farmhouse bracketed by trees.

Farther east loomed another 120 wind generators not yet activated, completely motionless in the brisk autumn wind. This group of turbines resembled an industrial-strength sculpture garden set down in the middle of the Corn Belt. When all 240 turbines are fully energized this December, Twin Groves will become the largest windpower plant in the eastern United States.

In most U.S. locations, the scale of Twin Groves would simply overwhelm the viewshed. But when the landscape has already been simplified into a monocultural expanse, it doesn’t matter how many turbines one can see from the back porch. Indeed, Twin Groves successfully marries commodity-based agriculture with commodity-scale renewable energy.

Bulk windpower may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is the only renewable energy source that can be scaled up to displace meaningful volumes of airborne pollutants that come with generating electricity from fossil fuels. When fully operational, the 396 megawatt (MW) Twin Groves project will displace almost 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide and 100 pounds of mercury each year.

Wind generation at this scale also yields an exceptionally high energy profit ratio compared with all other energy sources being produced, including new sources of crude oil and gasoline. Over its life Twin Groves should put out at least 30 units of energy for every unit put in, as compared with the energy profit from Canadian tar sands (about three to one) and corn-derived ethanol (about 1.4 to 1). A higher energy return, it should be remembered, frees up more wealth to support other socially useful institutions, such as schools, libraries, concerts, and day care centers.

Unlike coal, wind can be converted into useful energy at the same location without depleting the resource. Nowhere is the contrast between coal’s decline and wind’s advance greater than in the anthracite belt of east-central Pennsylvania. On my way to visit Iberdrola’s 26 MW Locust Ridge wind project, I drove through a community, Mahanoy City, that was once entirely supported by the coal industry.

Sixty years ago, the coal breaker located at the edge of town cleaned and processed 12,500 tons of coal a day, much of it stripped from nearby ridges. When the easy-to- remove anthracite began to peter out, the coal company shut down the old breaker, which was Mahanoy City’s primary employer, and built a new one farther from town. About the only jobs left in Mahanoy City involved reclaiming old mine sites.

After several decades of economic contraction and population loss, things are finally looking up for Mahanoy City. A healing layer of vegetation now covers the once-shorn hillsides, and a 13-turbine project now graces the northern ridgeline, injecting dollars into the community’s financial bloodstream and producing energy for the long haul.

While coal may still be king in Appalachia, it’s also a sunset commodity that cannot support a sustainable local economy. Unlike the old breaker plant in Mahanoy City, the wind turbines on Locust Ridge are staying put, because that’s where the resource is, day in and day out.

Michael Vickerman is the executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, an organization advocating for a sustainable energy future.


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