Blowing in the Wind

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Wisconsin Trails November/December 2005

ACROSS THE DRIFTLESS AREA, Kim Zuhlke steers his king cab into a stiffening southwest breeze. It’s a beautiful spring day, and the passing farms remind the utility executive of a time when he was a young conservationist, building a scale model of the farm of the future. It was 1979, and in the spirit of the energy crisis he stuck a windmill on the silo.

Positively quaint, compared with the 20 utility-scale wind turbines now tumbling over the horizon near Montfort.We’re thankful for today’s wind—Zuhlke because he now harvests strands of pure energy from the sky for Alliant Energy, and me because I’m eager to see it done.He pulls to the side of the road, and, awestruck, I get out and gawk like a tourist.

Some people see wind turbines as ungainly industrial invaders, interlopers on the pastorale. I find them beautiful. There is certainly no hiding all that mass and motion pirouetting white against the blue sky. The blades surpass the wingspan of a Boeing 727, and at their zenith soar 330 feet from the ground. The nacelle, the streamlined shell housing the turbine, is the size of a semi and weighs 181 tons. Each enormous pinwheel is fastened to the earth with a 161-ton plug of concrete and a tether of copper surging with current. Together they power 10,500 Wisconsin homes—less than 1 percent of the state.

Zuhlke has the aura of a man in the right place at the right time. Even before Katrina sent oil beyond $60 a barrel and gave climate change a muscular makeover, it was boom time for the wind industry. “Wind is the most cost-effective renewable that we have at our disposal,” he says simply. The next two years alone could see wind generation grow 10 times over in Wisconsin.

The fuel is free. The technology is mature. Windmills promise to liberate us from the crude and entangling empires of fossil fuel. They don’t threaten international conflict. But they do threaten the rural peace. Lingering questions balance the promise: Do turbines kill birds and bats? Do they degrade our treasured landscapes? Do they make enough energy to justify the intrusion? Can we build them fast enough?


A recent poll showed that 87 percent of Americans support expanded wind farms, and I’m in that number. When my wife enrolled in the Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison in 1991, she fell in with a cadre we call the Energy Guys. Now they work for governments, utilities, manufacturers, and advocacy organizations. I’ve received an informal indoctrination on alternative energy while playing pond hockey, drinking beer, watching our kids. My daughter’s college fund includes Madison Gas & Electric, partly because of its commitment to wind.

Still, all of my professional life I’ve been writing about threats to Wisconsin wildlife and landscape. My very first story for this magazine was about bats at the Neda Mine— bats that could die in large numbers due to wind farms planned nearby. If these ranks of towers were for better cell reception or the world’s largest bungee park, I doubt I would approve. But every new home, new business, new gadget in Wisconsin spins the meter ever faster. Electrical demand grows at 2 to 3 percent a year, and in 2003 electricity use made up one-third of an energy tab that ran up to $13.8 billion. More than $9 billion of that is thought to leave the state economy. And I don’t need to tell you what’s happening to your utility bills.

What can wind do for Wisconsin? It is no silver bullet, no swooping, nick-of-time superhero. In the next decade it might net us 5, maybe 10 percent of our electricity. And the wind does not blow full time. To some, this paltry percentage and unreliable nature suggest that wind is not a player. But we now know that we cannot trust in cheap oil, and that our energy must come from a wider range of sources to remain reliable, sustainable, and affordable. Electricity in Wisconsin is currently generated largely from coal, natural gas, hydro, and nuclear. Wind is poised to do more heavy lifting, but you simply can’t exchange utility infrastructures overnight. The key is sustained investment.

In a parking lot across from the Montfort turbines, a color-coded map of total U.S. wind potential shows Wisconsin in 18th place—hardly the Saud of Wind. On a global scale, wind potential is measured in terawatts—a billion watts, or the output of more than 500 nuclear reactors. In 2000, the world used perhaps 1.8 terawatts; there is enough reliable wind to produce 72 terawatts. One-fifth of this energy could satisfy all global energy demands. Four of the windiest states in the United States—North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska—could electrify the entire country. Wisconsin has one-tenth the potential of either Minnesota or Iowa, both of which can generate wind electricity 25 percent more cheaply than Wisconsin, due to higher average wind speeds.

The challenge is actually harvesting all this energy. Big wind and big turbines are key. Montfort’s turbines are 1.5 megawatts—20 times bigger than the industry standard 20 years ago—and offshore turbines will soon top 5 megawatts. Blade size and turbine height make all the difference. Double the area swept by the blade and you double the output. Even more important is wind speed, since energy production is proportional to the velocity cubed. This simple math is staggering: A wind turbine averaging 8 mph will capture only half the energy of a turbine spinning at 10 mph. Because the wind blows faster and more reliably on high, away from ground drag and turbulence, turbine owners want their towers as tall as possible.

More utilities are getting involved as the economics improve and wind energy becomes increasingly mainstream. “We’ve turned the corner from wind being an interesting thing to do to being a serious part of the portfolio,” explains Zuhlke. “We’re positioned to be able to optimize the economics.”

Wind development is also driven by an on-again, offagain production tax credit. Congress dropped the tax credit for 2004 but restored it for 2005 and, in the recent Energy Bill, extended the credit through 2007. The result: 2004 was a bust year, while 2005 could more than quadruple wind capacity; manufacturers can’t build turbines fast enough to meet investor demand.

Critics argue that wind would not be feasible without this credit. But most forms of electric generation are subsidized one way or another. Greg Bollom, who runs MG&E’s wind program, believes that wind development would proceed without the credit. The wind farm built in Kewaunee in 1999 with a tax credit could probably provide cheaper electricity without the credit if it were constructed with today’s technology. “That’s how much the economics have improved,” says Bollom. And the higher the price of fossil fuels climbs, the better the balance sheet for wind looks. “Ten percent renewable energy by 2015 or 2020—with a large chunk of that coming from wind—is very doable,” he says.

The only electricity source that’s cheaper and greener than wind is conservation. But saving electricity is not something most consumers think about. “We use way too much electricity for wind to account for more than about 5 to 6 percent of the load,” argues Michael Vickerman of RENEW Wisconsin. “We demand far more from the utilities than we’re willing to pay.” Because of this entitled attitude, he says, we’re drawing down our natural capital. “What prevents us from hanging our clothes out to dry is not a technology problem but an attitude problem,” he continues.“But every other energy source is becoming more expensive. At some point we’re going to lose the wealth that would have enabled us to transition to something more sustainable.”


On a cool morning in May, I find myself sitting in Butter’s Bar, a NASCAR and Packers playpen carved from the inside of an old barn. For Mick Sagrillo, a 25-year veteran of small wind systems in Wisconsin, it’s just another place to spread the gospel. His acolytes all paid to be here—traveling from as far away as Massachusetts and New York—for a weeklong workshop in small wind installation.

Dancing on the sidelines is David Blecker, one of the Energy Guys and the founder of Seventh Generation Energy Systems Inc. Over the previous few days Sagrillo and Blecker have supervised the assembly of a 110-foot lattice tower (see pages 38-39), and the cranes are due at any minute. Sagrillo ticks off the precautions: Beware of loose tools, know your escape route, and no jitters allowed—so don’t consume too much caffeine, nicotine, or even high-fructose corn syrup. Blecker is walking through the hand signals he’ll be using when a diesel throb finally signals the cranes’ arrival.

Outside, the Ecker farm perches atop a glorious swath of the Niagara Escarpment. Above Lake Winnebago to the west, a thin black cloud—sooty remnants of the Fox Valley morning commute—limns the horizon. Three sandhill cranes buzz the site in formation as the crews fasten and organize and cinch. Then the booms swing and the high-tension dance begins.With choreographed ease first the tower, then the generator nacelle, and finally the blade slip into place.

While the last bolts are tightened, Sagrillo relaxes in a lawn chair just out of the fall zone and reflects on the changing winds. Let his hair and beard grow, drape his wiry frame in a flowing robe, trade his glasses for a pipe, and it might be Gandalf sitting in that chair.Months before gas hits $3 a gallon, he reads his crystal ball. “I think it’s gonna take an economic two-by-four on the side of the head before people really start thinking different about how we use energy and where we get energy from,” he says. Like $5 a gallon gasoline and 20 cent a kilowatt-hour electricity. “We’re going to get there sooner than people think,” he warns.

Fortunately, the windustry has not stood still. “This was utility scale on the wind farms in California,” says Sagrillo, pointing up at the nacelle and its freshly painted American flag. Twenty years ago this very turbine was installed on one of the first U.S. wind farms. Built by the Danish company Vestas Wind Systems and reconditioned after its retirement, it will be producing electricity again by this time tomorrow.

“Wind generators are sort of like campfires,” says Sagrillo. “People can sit and look at them with a beer in their hand for hours and hours.” Some people, anyway. In 1999, this land was part of MG&E’s first proposed wind farm—until the neighbors objected. “You don’t want to look at it?” asks Sagrillo rhetorically. “Would you rather look at a transmission line? Would you rather look at a coalfired power plant? What, you think it’s just magic that the electrons jump out of the wall?”

When the installation is complete,Marvin Ecker arrives on his ATV with a grill under one arm and a case of beer for the crew. For him, wind is not just another cash crop. The Vestas turbine takes up just 30 feet by 30 feet of a 21-acre field, which will still yield soybeans, corn, and winter wheat. Ecker has a surveyor’s map on which this field had been sectioned out in 22 residential lots; after he sold the first farm building, his brother Merlin, who lives in the adjacent house and presides over Butter’s Bar, declared, “I’ll take a windmill in my backyard before I’ll take another neighbor.”

It’s been argued that the siting of turbines in poorer rural areas is just another form of rural exploitation. But farmers like Ecker see turbines as a powerful economic tool. “I lost a couple million dollars on that last project,” he says of the 1999 MG&E effort. “I should be mad, but I’m not.” And he is ebullient today. The Eckers see turbines as an alternative to selling the land, and hope for even bigger turbines despite a May 2005 moratorium on wind development passed by Calumet County. “Windmills are great for farmers,” says Marvin. “I’m preserving the land for my kids.”

Blecker has now installed a half dozen recycled turbines, and he argues that small wind gives more to the rural economy than kilowatts.There are 75,000 farms of 200 acres or better in the state, and many have significant power bills. “The benefits are immediate and direct in terms of reduced electric bills, in terms of contributing to overall environmental stewardship, in terms of community pride,” he says. “It’s local firms, local contractors, the cement companies, the electricians that get the secondary economic benefits from the construction. The money stays here, and that’s not insignificant.”


The Niagara Escarpment below the Ecker farm has its origins in rocks nearly half a billion years old, thick slabs of dolomite from the Silurian Age that hold some of the first fossil evidence of life on land. Geologists call it a cuesta—a gently sloping layer of rock that rises to a steep bluff formed by erosion to the next, softer layer below. Beginning at Niagara Falls, it sweeps northward to form the northern shore of Lake Huron, then down along the Upper Peninsula, through Door County to the eastern edge of Horicon Marsh. The topography supports a unique variety of plants and animals, including small white lady’s-slipper, snow trillium, elk sedge, and spoon-leaf moonwort, as well as rare land snails dating to the last ice age and what is perhaps the oldest tree in Wisconsin: a 1,200-year-old red cedar.

Less than a mile along the escarpment from the Eckers’ new windmill, Bill Engler has a second home. As mayor of nearby Chilton, Engler helped drive the 1999 relocation of MG&E’s proposed wind farm from near Chilton to Kewaunee.

Against this natural tableau, says Engler, a 300- to 400- foot tower with a windmill is an aesthetic nuisance. “I’m not against windmills,” says Engler. “I believe they should be located in certain areas, and not in others, just like a factory. We have zoning to preserve and maximize the use of the lands that we have. It’s an electric factory. They’re not farms.”Wisconsin’s restrictions on shoreland development, he argues, could serve as a good model for protecting outstanding landscape features.

Engler is hardly alone in his sentiments. All over Wisconsin fierce local opposition to utility-scale wind is popping up. In Manitowoc County, Wisconsin Citizens Opposing Windturbine Sites is challenging a permit for 49 turbines in three townships. Projects were halted in Washington County in 2002 and in Shawano County in 2003. Still more municipalities have enacted moratoriums.

The biggest fight of all continues over the Forward Energy Wind Center, hard to the east of Horicon Marsh. MG&E’s $250 million, 133-turbine project was given conditional approval by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin in July, while a second hearing was denied to opponents in September. Construction should be completed by the end of the year, but legal action is promised.

Jim and Cheryl Congdon, longtime residents of the town of Williamstown, have been vocal opponents of the project. From their home they see farm fields and the marsh, and won’t be able to see the turbines. But since they first heard of the project last November, they’ve opposed it tirelessly, attending every relevant meeting, joining Horicon Marsh System Advocates, and testifying as a family before the PSC.

Cheryl likes to relax around the marsh. Out among the cattails and dragonflies and red-winged blackbirds, she feels a profound peace stretching to the horizon. The escarpment, scattered with forest, farms, and homes, bounds this special world. “To see an industrial site lining the refuge will be mentally very difficult for me,” she says. “The huge environmental footprint it’s leaving we feel isn’t worth the minute amount of energy—what it’s going to do to people’s mental health, to their homes, to their property values.”

“The skyline along the escarpment is going to be lined with wind towers,” adds Jim. “And when you get up on top of the escarpment, from just about any point you’re going to see just about all of them.”

Jim’s experience as a resource management professional helps him understand the trade-offs and complexities of balancing nature with economic development. “I don’t know enough about wind energy technically to really make an objective opinion on whether it’s good or not,” he admits. But he does know how difficult it is for local governments to get good environmental analyses. “They just don’t have the knowledge to do an objective evaluation of these projects,” he says. That problem is compounded by the lure of the large annual cash payments the project will provide to cash-strapped farmers and local governments.

Environmental review is subjective and imprecise, as the final environmental impact statement for the Forward Energy project makes clear. As far back as last November, both the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources expressed reservations about the potential impact of the project on birds. The vast combined area of the state and national refuges makes Horicon Marsh a major stop for migratory birds, and a wetland of international value. The impact statement faults Forward for “less rigorous” research than other Wisconsin wind farm studies, and for not meeting standards set by the DNR, the USFWS, or even the National Wind Coordinating Committee. Forward’s research missed peak areas of bird population and migration times, collected data for only two seasons, did not look closely enough at rare species, and, rather remarkably, “did not address the importance of Horicon Marsh’s effect on bird use within the project area.”

The conflict between birds and turbines has been a concern for years. One of the first big California wind farms was located on a major raptor flyway, resulting in thousands of bird deaths. The industry seems sensitive to the problem, funding a variety of research and focusing on turbine design and siting to minimize avian carnage. Turbines still kill birds, but only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of birds killed annually by vehicles, windows, communication towers, and cats. Still, a more recent review conducted by scientists in Great Britain suggests that “wind farms reduce the abundance of many bird species at the wind farm site.”

Bats are a newer concern. The Forward project is only 10 miles from the abandoned Neda Mine, a large hibernaculum. Another proposed farm, Butler Ridge, is just two miles from the mine. Recent research in West Virginia showed each turbine was killing an “unsustainable” number of bats, prompting a quick and collaborative response from Bat Conservation International and some windustry players to fund more intense research. But that research is just beginning.

“There is enough data to show that there could be quite a devastating problem,” says Evelyn Howell, an ecologist in UW-Madison’s department of landscape architecture and chair of the Natural Areas Preservation Council. But she’s torn between her concern over the large impacts of energy consumption and the Neda bats. “I hate to think that we’re having to make such a horrible trade-off—air pollution versus bats,” she says. “We need to have enough information, and we need to think beyond the immediate question into all of the ramifications.”


The Congdons kept insisting that I see the pictures. Two of their daughters are graphic artists, and with a friend they’ve Photoshopped the proposed towers into some panoramic views of the marsh and surrounding area. When the Congdons first shared their aesthetic concerns with me, I thought I understood. The soft, liquid sweep of the wind in the rushes is a language I believe I fathom. When they spoke of neighbors aligned against the project, I felt the anguish of a community divided.

And yet when I looked at the same pictures that evoke their outrage and frustration, I was once again enchanted by the windmills. Landscape architect Caroline Stanton has written that wind projects “should not be judged solely on their visual properties; indeed, they may be greatly valued for other qualities, such as what they symbolize.”And therein lies the difference.When I see a windmill, I see the symbol first.

We are beset by a huge variety of environmental problems. But at the fulcrum of it all is our vast appetite for energy. Most of the time we don’t see the true cost of that appetite. We don’t see radioactive tailings piles, military facilities for uranium processing, decades-long political battles over spent-fuel storage, the desolation of Chernobyl. “You don’t see the mercury going into the fish, you don’t see children getting asthma, you don’t see deforestation and acid rain,” says David Blecker.

Even harder to see is a world transformed by global warming.While we tend to think of it as a global phenomenon, climate change will be felt most dearly at the local level, as changes in rainfall and temperature lead to shifts in plant and then animal ranges. Horicon will not be untouched. Can we balance this epic disruption of nature against a few thousand birds and bats? And yet we must. Fossil-fuel power plants are responsible for nearly half of U.S. carbon emissions. To reduce or even stabilize emissions we must moderate our appetite, and we must find power that is carbon-free.

“Face-off is now,” says one of the Energy Guys when I bump into him in July, the day after the state Supreme Court approved a huge coal-generation facility along Lake Michigan. Utility investments typically last at least a generation; the decisions we make now may foreclose other options in the future.

Flying over Lake Michigan recently, I tried to picture its wind-swept shoreline flanked by turbines. We have little enough grand country left. Should what little we have be fitted with windmills? Have our choices come to this? I fear that they have. I love the sweep of land and water uninterrupted to the horizon, but the worldly peace it suggests may now simply be an illusion that borders on dangerous self-deception.

It’s true that the Horicon turbines could take out a rare whooping crane, delivering a significant blow to that species’ recovery. Then again, climate change may do that as well—less dramatically but more definitively. Worldwide, the extinction toll of climate change is likely to include hundreds of thousands of species. It certainly has the potential to rework the Wisconsin landscape in the image of, say, southern Indiana. How do you think the North Woods will look done up in kudzu?

That’s the cup half empty. At half full is a business proposition: Electricity is the third biggest industry in the country, worth $300 billion annually. We could avoid the whole not-in-my-backyard problem by simply putting turbines everywhere. Embracing a sustainable future could pay significant dividends. Denmark, which gets 20 percent of its electricity from the wind, plans to reap a full half by 2030. “I am very bullish on our technology capability,” says Alliant’s Zuhlke. “We can do some incredibly good things on the energy front. I would love to come back to Planet Earth in five or six generations and see what’s happened.”

Climate change has the potential to rework the Wisconsin landscape in the image of, say, southern Indiana. How do you think the North Woods will look done up in kudzu?