Standing under a bright midday sun in central Indiana with nothing but cornfields on every side, it’s easy to be optimistic about our country’s energy and automotive future. In the midst of these fields, rising from the ground like the legs of a “Star Wars” Imperial Walker, are dozens of wind turbines, their blades lazily slicing the crisp Midwestern breeze.
Why are these windmills – impressive as they are – important enough to land on the pages of Cars.com? Think about it this way: Nissan proudly trumpets its new all-electric Leaf as a “zero emissions” vehicle. While this is technically correct, it only refers to the product itself, not the power it needs to move.
As electric vehicles from numerous automakers deploy across the U.S. and the world, they will be largely drawing their power from coal-fired power plants and contributing to the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change (albeit not as badly as their gas-powered counterparts).
Thus, we find ourselves in search of “clean energy,” be it solar, biomass or, in this case, wind. The goal is to one day not only drive electric, hydrogen and alt-fuel cars but to power them from renewable, carbon-free resources.
These particular wind turbines were built and are operated by Horizon Wind Energy, a Houston-based renewable energy company. The 121 turbines comprise Phase I of the Meadow Lake Wind Farm in White County, Ind., powering the equivalent of 60,000 homes.
“There are five things we look at when deciding where to build a wind farm,” Horizon project manager Jeffrey Nemeth told me earlier that day. “You need wind, access to transmission lines, community support, electricity demand and land — preferably agricultural.”
Horizon pays farmers $4,000 to $8,000 per year to use their land, building turbines and access roads through the fields. Another 66 turbines are scheduled to go online in the next three weeks, and the company will have all four phases of the project completed by October. The full 303 turbines will generate somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 megawatts, enough to power 300,000 homes.
What would happen if a major portion of those 300,000 households decided to buy an electric vehicle in late 2010?
“They would increase demand for electricity, that’s for sure,” said Nemeth, who doesn’t need to note that the power needs of an EV are equivalent to getting another small home. “But it’s quicker to build a wind farm than a coal plant, so wind developers would actually love that.”
I certainly can’t argue the point. I sometimes drive along Interstate 65 when I go back home to Ohio, and it was on one of those trips when I first drove past the towering blades spinning in the dark. From my perspective, Meadow Lake Phase I basically went up overnight. Furthermore, while wind power costs more upfront, there is no input cost. You don’t have to spend money tearing apart West Virginia mountaintops and delivering coal. The wind farms tend to recoup their cost in three to 10 years, depending on the wind source, Nemeth said.
“The real key is transmission lines and storage. If someone figures out a way to store electricity efficiently and inexpensively, they’ll be an instant billionaire,” said Nemeth.
Here again, is an area where wind energy and electric vehicles might enjoy a symbiosis.
Denmark, which gets 20% of its power from wind, has been experimenting with vehicle-to-grid technology on the island of Bornholm. The idea is to use car batteries as storage units for wind-generated electricity when the wind is blowing strong, saving it for homes and businesses as needed. General Motors has touted this capability in promoting its upcoming Volt plug-in hybrid. Using this method, Bornholm’s 40,000 residents could get an estimated 50% of their electric needs from wind energy. There are plans to drastically scale up America’s use of wind power, but political support is key, according to Nemeth, who thinks a national renewable energy standard would “help make a huge push for wind and solar possible.”
Whereas gathering support for building wind turbines has been difficult in places like Cape Cod (where legal turmoil held up the proposed off-shore wind farm for almost a decade), the residents of White County have been almost uniformly enthusiastic.
Gary Hendryx, a member of the County Council and owner of the Top Notch Bar in Brookston, has been working with Horizon on the Meadow Lake Wind Farm since the beginning of the project. He says Horizon has been great for the community, putting extra money in farmers’ pockets and creating 450 construction jobs.
“I’d say 90% of the community was on board at first,” Hendryx said. “Of that 10% that were unhappy, probably eight to nine now wish they had turbines on their property.”
“It’s an American mentality to have your own car, and we associate that with freedom,” said Nemeth. “I’ll be the first to admit, my first car was a 1973 AMC Hornet, and I’ve always liked my fast cars. I even own two motorcycles.”
Nemeth said he’d be interested in an extended-range vehicle like the Chevy Volt that could save him a lot of cash on his epic commute home to Illinois, but if he were to buy that car tomorrow, he would still plug into an Indiana grid that runs 97% on fossil fuels and mostly coal, according to the Energy Information Administration. The state’s total net electricity generation is around 9,142 megawatt-hours; at full capacity, Meadow Lake will be capable of about 500 MWh.
Still, you have to start somewhere, right? And for Brookston the wind farm has become an anchor for the community.
“I wake up every morning and watch 10 of them from the window of my house,” Hendryx says of the turbines. “I think they just look brilliant.”
Cars.com photographs by Ian Merritt