Wind Power and The Frontier Line

By Deane Barker on July 3, 2005

I’m a big fan of wind power. I drive east on I-90 every few months, and there are three or four small wind farms between here and Blue Earth, Minnesota. I love the look of those big white windmills, spinning on the prairie.

There was an article in the local paper today about the “Frontier Line,” an agreement between four states to create a power transmission line from Wyoming to California. This goal is to get power generated in the Midwest — a large portion of it from wind — out to California, where it’s needed the most.

Here’s an article:

According to Reuters, the goal of the $20-million initiative is to deliver 12,000 megawatts of power to the Western electric grid via wind power facilities and integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) “clean-coal” plants.

Hope this will spur on the development of wind power. Twelve thousands megawatts is a bit above your standard AA battery. For comparison, according to this Wikipedia article, nuclear reactors coming online these days generate about 1,200 megawatts — do the math.

I looked very hard to find out how much power a city used, and I found this article that stated New York City’s estimated power consumption in 2004 was 12,600 megawatts. (Does anyone have better figures than this? I’m interested.)

This could be big for my home state — according to the article in the paper, here are top five states in terms of wind energy potential.

  1. North Dakota
  2. South Dakota (my state)
  3. Wyoming and Montana (tie)
  4. Minnesota

Without a doubt, there’s a lot of wind out here.

However, one of the big trends in wind energy is to put the windmills out in the water, where there are no obstructions to interrupt the wind. Cape Wind is an attempt to build a 130-turbine farm five miles off the shore of Cape Cod. It’s estimated to have a peak output of 420 megawatts, which would supposedly power the Cape (but with wind, how often are you at peak output?). Sadly, Cape Wind has run into much community opposition, since folks out there pay a lot of money for the view.

Not surprsingly, Wikipedia had some great resources on wind power and wind farms:

Some day, I’m going to move to the country and put up my own windmill to power my house, then go off the grid. This one will give me 12,000 watts.

My wife will be just thrilled with 23-foot diameter blades spinning above the house. Let it blow.

(Note: the image at the top is of the Huron Wind Farm in Canada, and was taken from the Wikipedia article. Repinted under the GNU Free Documentation License.)



  1. Unfortunately, wind produces sporadic power, which is not what people need. Factories, air-conditioners and electric lights run to a regular schedule, so they need power a) on schedule every day and b) from a system with enough guaranteed capacity to cover the peak of demand (electricity can’t be easily stored, so you always have to be ready to produce enough to cover demand at that instant in time).

    Wind power doesn’t produce on schedule, and you can’t guarantee its capacity at all.

    Chances are that the 12,600 megawatts you mention will only be produced when it’s blowing a gale. (I don’t think you’d get it for $20 million either, but let that pass.) Most of the time, the wind system will be producing less than 2000 megawatts. And that’s not much good to anyone, because you don’t know when it’s going to be produced.

    The result is that in somewhat simplified terms, for wind power to be economic, a wind power facility’s cost of installation PLUS operation has to be no higher than a fossil fuel or nuclear plant’s cost of operation alone. Either that or you need to subsidise the wind power system or penalise the other systems for their environmental damage.

    Environmental groups tend to be surprisingly unhappy about wind farms too, because locals hate the disruption to their view and birdlife cops a bit of a beating from the blades.

    I wish it were otherwise, but for these reasons I find it hard to get excited about wind power.

  2. Just to reinforce the points made by the above poster…

    Here in Alberta, we regularly have high winds coming down from the mountains and across the plains. There are several hundred megawatts of wind turbines set up in the southern part of the province that are connected to the grid. However, the capacity factor on these wind farms is approximately 30%. That means, if they have a maximum capacity of producing 100 MW, they only produce an average of approximately 30 MW over time. Sometimes, it’s producing a full 100 MW. Sometimes, it’s producing some fraction of that. Sometimes, it’s not producing any electricity at all.

    The second problem with wind is that it does affect grid stability. There is a maximum amount of power that can be supplied by wind before a power grid risks instability (voltage/ frequency stability). This stability is critical to the safe and reliable operation of the electrical system.

    A final problem is the “line loss” from a long transmission line from one place (Midwest) to another (California). Line loss is the power that is lost to the resistance in the transmission line (lost in the form of heat), as the power is transmitted from one area to another. DC lines minimize line loss, relative to AC lines, but are much more expensive to build and require AC/DC conversion at both ends.

    In Alberta, they have been looking at a project called “Northern Lights” which would be a DC transmission line from the Oil Sands region of the province (which has a lot of excess power from steam production – cogen), to the Pacific Northwest (and then onto California). However, the cost of the project is practically prohibitive – $2+ billion. And it’s not anywhere near 12,000 MW – perhaps only 2,000 to 3,000 MW.

  3. This is a great example of why I love working on this site — I learn so much that I otherwise wouldn’t know. I just have to post about something I’m interested in, and I come away so much better informed about it.

  4. Local chapters of Sierra Club are strongly resisting the huge, world’s largest planned wind farm on land owned by oil and gas barons, … also part time cattle farmers, .. but cleary not knowledgeable re: the warming impacts of decreasing cooling airflow over the major bird and butterfly migratory route next to Padre Island (north part, by Corpus Christi) , by 40,000 acres of solid windmills/// instead of LOCAL installations which save energy lost in transport. Recent postings here alert us to this danger, … the loss, … but what about positive models of SMALLER SCALE FACILITIES, say, in HOLLAND and No. Germany, where more than 40 % of energy is produced from wind, … but of course they’ve also had horrid heat waves, esp. in Great Britain, which would be in the wind path somehow…. Any ideas from engineers or meteorologists on these worries? Help! We need to act fact if we are to block oil barons here from keeping a monopoly on weath, power, and now even the WIND and BIRD migration destinies. Calling all future-thinking “Small is Beautiful” folks from our macro-analysis seminars of the 70’s!

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