News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Friday, September 7, 2007

Hanging and blowing ungently in the wind

While a lot of hot air is being expended on energy independence, South Dakota is blowing it.

The profits from wind farms being developed in the state will not only leave the state, they will leave the country, following the precedent set with the state's cement plant. South Dakota farmers are experiencing a boom in the demand for corn and soybeans used to make ethanol and biodiesel fuel, which are highly subsidized and costly to manufacture, but when it comes to establishing self-sufficiency and independence from government subsidy and corporate integration, they are left blowing in the wind.

A few years ago, Northwestern Public Service was a local utility, headquartered in Huron. Then it started playing those corporate games that so often pass as "business." With the acquisition of some assets in Montana, it changed its name to Northwestern Energy and promptly went bankrupt. It has been purchased by Babcock and Brown, a firm based in Sydney, Austraiia. Early this spring, Babcock and Brown announced that it was building a 34-turbine wind farm on 3,000 acres near Wessington Springs. With the announcement came the news that the company was nice enough to sell the power it produced to South Dakota utilities.

[Note: The sale of Northwestern Energy to Babcock and Brown was scuttled in late July by the Montana Public Service Commission. Northwestern Energy has announced that it will not seek a new buyer and intends to operate as a "stand alone" public utility. Thanks for the alert by an anonymous commenter.]

To the north of Brown County in neighboring McPherson County and Dickey County in North Dakota, Acciona Wind Energy, a wholly owned subsidiary of Acciona SA headquartered in Madrid, Spain, is putting up a 120-unit windfarm. It is given the nice Dakota-sounding name of Tatanka Wind Power (Tatanka is the Lakota word for bison) and also will sell the energy it produces to the North Dakota electrical grid. They make it. We buy it.

A few years ago, when Deere & Co. announced that its finance division would lend money to farmers who wanted to add the production of energy to their operations, it envisioned individual farmers putting one or two large generating units on their land. These units would be joined in a cooperative way with units from neighboring farmers. It sounded like an opportunity for farmers to develop a source of energy that would boost their bottom lines and give them a degree of energy independence. The catch is that they would have to be able to sell the excess energy to someone. And South Dakota has no transmission lines that can send the electricity to a distribution point, nor does it have any utility laws that govern the sale of electricity from small producers to a utility.
Instead, South Dakota makes it easy and profitable for foreign companies to convert its wind energy into electricity which can be sold back to South Dakotans.

Many energy experts see another way to convert wind power into usable energy. Wind farms can drive electrolysis units that produce hydrogen from water. Although the development of fuel cell engines that burn hydrogen has taken a quickened pace, there is no infrastructure for handling the highly volatile hydrogen. Experts contend that if we have the technology to handle gasoline, we can develop the technology--and the infrastructure-- to handle hydrogen. But just as we have a lack of transmission lines to sell electricity to utilities, we lack any means to be part of the conversion to hydrogen fuel.

South Dakota has some of the best wind resources in the nation, but, as it does in many categories of resourceful enterprise, it ranks at the bottom in the development of wind energy. It's the same old story. They tell us we have no capacity to distribute energy we might produce, but we always seem to have the capacity to buy it from someone else, especially foreign mega-corporations.

And the people of South Dakota get to rank last in the nation once again.

Cross posted at KELOLAND blogs.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States