REDHOUSE, Md. – John Roth stood on his 88-acre farm, looking up at the land he owns on the mountain ridge. He hopes that someday he will see a new crop that needs no fertilizer and renews itself — windmills that generate electricity and, most importantly, a steady flow of income.
Roth is cashing in as many wind power projects pop up around the country, as skyrocketing oil and gas prices make wind power more competitive with traditional energy sources. This trend is sailing on a gust of government tax credits and policies that encourage companies to invest in the big turbines that produce the much needed electricity.
"I used to grow a lot of corn to fill my silos. I'm getting old enough, 67, and thought I should maybe think about not running the plow in the ground," the leather-skinned farmer said as he peered up at the 23 acres of land that lie above his farm on Maryland's highest point, known as Roth's Ridge.
Wind power, a renewable source of energy, offers income to land owners willing to lease their property to hold giant turbines. This growing industry offers the promise of an alternative long-term energy supply at stable prices, increased taxed revenue for many of the nation's rural communities and jobs to support manufacturing and growing technology.
In Pennsylvania, for example, new factories to support the state's wind energy program have added hundreds of jobs. Gamesa Corp., of Spain, the world's No. 2 wind turbine maker, has invested $40 million in a plant in Pennsylvania and plans to put in another $34 million.
Pennsylvania's Gov. Edward Rendell has unveiled plans for doubling the amount of green electricity from sources such as wind energy to 20 percent from 10 percent of the state's total electricity supply.
Total installed wind power plants in the United States now exceed 10,000 megawatts and produce enough electricity on a typical day to power more than 2.5 million homes. This is about 0.6 percent of total U.S. electricity supply.
CLEAN ENERGY AND CAPITAL
It's more than just an alternative source of power.
"Wind energy's contribution to the economy is stronger than it appears because it is not just a source of energy, but a clean source of energy," said Christine Real de Azua of the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C.
Likewise, this year's investment of more than $4 billion will contribute to capital formation. There are few negatives because there is no depletion of resources such as natural gas or water for electricity generation.
While wind energy is popular in Europe, supplying about 20 percent of the power for countries such as Denmark, it accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. electricity generation. However, President Bush — faced with a nation consuming more energy even as prices climb — says he hopes to see renewable energy sources like wind supply about a fifth of the country's power sometime in the future.
But regulatory hurdles and environmental concerns have delayed development of many wind energy projects in Maryland and other states, even though wind power supporters argue that it is a source of energy that is less disruptive to the environment than most.
"The footprint they leave is so small," Furqan Siddiqi, vice president of Annapolis, Maryland-based Synergics Wind Energy LLC, said of the turbines as he peeked over the top of
Roth's Ridge at smoke billowing out of the Mount Storm coal-fired power plant.
The land where Siddiqi's company wants to install these wind turbines is next to coal strip mines. It has been cleared and reshaped by the logging industry.
THE SOUND OF MONEY
Down the ridge are dozens of windmills in West Virginia operated by Florida Power & Light. They stand more than 200 feet tall and hum gently as the big blades whoosh through the air, with each generating enough electricity to power about 1,500 homes.
"Environmentally, you are not affecting anything," Siddiqi said.
West Virginia's Public Service Commission recently approved a plan to put 124 wind turbines in the southeastern part of the state, generating enough electricity to power 50,000 homes.
A windmill project, Siddiqi noted, takes about eight months to build, far less than the estimated five years to develop a coal-fired power plant. Each turbine sits on a cement pad, leaving the surrounding area untouched.
Roth, the Maryland farmer, entered into a lease with Synergics, a renewable energy development company, to let three power-generating windmills run on his property. He will earn thousands of dollars a year for leasing his land — now used for hunting and timbering.
"It would be a good source for me to retire by. If not, I'll probably have to give up the farm in a couple of years and sell her to some young pilgrim that likes to root in the ground and pick rocks," he said of the land that has been in his family for more than 100 years.
Synergics' plan for the Roth Rock wind energy project calls for up to 20 of these huge turbines. Each can generate up to 2.5 megawatts of power per hour — enough to provide power to about 2,000 homes.
But the Roth Rock project is snarled in red tape with the state over environmental issues, including the welfare of the Allegheny woodrat and the rock vole.
Once in place, the wind turbines promise plenty of revenue to Maryland's Garrett County, one of the state's poorest areas, in the Appalachian Mountains next door to even poorer West Virginia. The Roth Rock project could bring in enough tax revenue to fund the county's entire health services program. The area earns some tourism money from nearby lake and ski resorts. But it relies on revenue from coal strip mining.
"It's a good positive opportunity for the community," said retiree Carl Rebele, 78, of nearby Oakland, Maryland. "To me, our assets when they are used well, offer returns to us many, many times over."