The Poorest County in the Country is in the middle of the Saudi Arabia of Wind

This post was originally published with Sustainable West Seattle in February 2011. 

The latest rankings show that the poorest county in the Country is Ziebach County, South Dakota. Two Indian Reservations make up this very rural county with a population density of 1.3 people per square mile (as compared to  816 people per square mile for King County). This is a place where more than 60% of the people live at or below the poverty line (a family of four making less than $22,000 a year).

Dealing with generations of poverty is difficult.  It’s hard to imagine what the people of Ziebach County could do to bring prosperity to this windy spot in the middle of nowhere. Wait, did you say windy? There’s power in the wind. There’s money in the wind. There are jobs in the wind. Maybe the Reservation could raise capital and build a windfarm.

Looking at the wind resource map for South Dakota shows that Ziebach County is in the middle of some of the best wind resources in the world. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that South Dakota alone could be home to over 800,000 MegaWatts (MWs) of wind turbines. This could replace about 300 plants the size of Washington’s only coal-fired power plant in Centralia. By comparison, Washington State’s wind potential is less than 10,000 MWs.

South Dakota could support 800,000 MW, but only has 977 MW of installed capacity. By comparison Washington, which has relatively meager wind potential, has 1964 MW of installed wind turbines. The difference is access to markets. Washington’s wind farms are located near existing long distance transmission power lines that can transmit the power generated to Seattle or elsewhere. The windfarm developers didn’t need to build the transmission capacity, they just connected to what was already there. In South Dakota there just isn’t much in the way of transmission lines to connect to. Without the transmission, that wind power is stranded. Looking again at the map of the grid, we see that North Dakota has significant connections to the Minneapolis area and 1222 MW of installed wind power, despite having slightly less potential than its neighbor to the south. It’s clear that the most important element leading to the development of wind power is not wind, but transmission.

In the 1950’s we started to build the interstate highway system, which changed the landscape of this country, allowing goods and commerce to flow more easily. We had state highways that served local needs, but if you wanted to drive from sea to shining sea you needed to cobble together a route from a series of highways.

The federal system eased the trip. Today we need to build a similar system for the flow of renewable energy. The current electrical grid was built to move power short distances, not move wind power from Ziebach County to Chicago, Detroit or Miami. Building such a system would allow us to decommission our fleet of coal-fired power plants, while bringing prosperity to places like Ziebach County.

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