Advanced Technology Enables Illinois Electric Co-Op to Tap into Wind Power
Mayberry, Anne, Rural Cooperatives
Driving across rural Illinois in December, the landscape is one of pale gold crop residue set against rich brown soil. But in one part of rural Pike County, Illinois, the landscape has changed dramatically. Now, towering 365 feet above the fields is a wind turbine erected by Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative (Illinois REC).
Since it was installed in May, 2005, the turbine--Illinois' first--has been producing power at full capacity 30 percent of the time, depending on wind speed and frequency. This is in keeping with projections in the project feasibility study.
Many parts of the nation, including much of Illinois, were previously thought to lack the wind resources necessary for wind power. But wind turbine technology has improved greatly in recent years, with utility-scale turbines generating electricity at wind speeds as low as six miles per hour.
"The new technology allows the turbines to operate at a lower wind speed, and that changes the equation of where they can be located," says Sean Middleton, the co-op's manager of engineering.
States such as North and South Dakota still have an advantage because the wind blows so much more there. "In the Dakotas, the 30 percent full capacity we see in Illinois would likely be closer to 40, 50 or even 60 percent capacity," Middleton says.
But variability of wind can pose problems. Wind power is not classified as base-load power because it cannot be relied upon 24/7 to provide enough electric power to meet member needs.
USDA loan aids project
Wind power is among the fastest growing forms of renewable energy in the United States. It is also one of the lowest-cost, non-hydro sources of renewable power. Once a turbine is paid for, wind is essentially free fuel that produces no greenhouse gas emissions. With the increasing cost of fossil fuels and the low environmental impact of wind turbines, wind power is "the right thing to do," Middleton says.
Illinois REC's wind project was boosted by a $1.3 million loan from USDA Rural Development's Utilities Program. The wind project earned the co-op the Wind Cooperative of the Year honor from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2006.
The initial thrust for the wind project began with the co-op's members. "We do annual surveys of our members, and one question asked whether we should explore involvement in alternative sources of energy," Middleton says. "The answer was an overwhelming 'Yes!'"
"Our next step was to see how we could make alternative energy sources work for us," Middleton continues. "Cooperatives are good at managing debt and have good relations with their communities and their members; these relations were assets that helped."
As part of its feasibility study of wind power, co-op representatives attended a conference sponsored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the U. …