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Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010 09:50 pm

Harvesting electricity

The newest energy crop from Illinois fields

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The American Wind Energy Corp. in December announced its intention to plant 25,000 acres in western Sangamon County with wind turbines, beginning in 2011. While county officials busy themselves determining just how many votes it will cost them to approve the firm’s new Meridian Wind Farm, we will sit back and take in the larger view.

Illinois has always drawn energy from its soil, not in any mystical sense familiar to the poet, but in the mundane sense familiar to the engineer. The harvest of electicity by Meridian will be merely the latest of the many energy crops that the central Illinois countryside has yielded to it grateful occupiers.

When the local economy depended on real horsepower to get work done, much of every farm hereabouts was devoted to pasture and to growing the oats and hay (cultivated varieties of “tame hay” that replaced prairie grass) used to feed millions of engines with legs. Oats, for instance, pack lots of energy into conveniently shippable form, and after the Civil War became a nice little cash crop for Illinois farmers, who exported them to Chicago to help feed the herds that pulled the wagons and streetcars and carriages. (And added to the problem of horse manure in the streets there, that era’s version of acid rain or smog.) Springfield in the latter 1800s had feed stores the way it has gas stations today, a heritage alluded to by the founders of the eponymous soup-and-sandwich restaurant on the square.

A horse can pull a load but it can’t generate heat or light. For that, our honorable ancestors used wood. The first Euro-Americans who began squatting here in the 1830s took from the forests not only wood for building and barrels and tanning chemicals but energy. Tallow and animal oils were burned to make light but heat came from wood fires. (Later, for a while, wood also was used for transport, thanks to wood-fired steam engines on riverboats and later trains.) And such fires they were. Energy in this form was cheap, and crude huts built to suit the Southern climate from which most area settlers came were notoriously drafty compared to houses built in more evolved cultures. Housefuls of hardwood were consumed each winter making February warmer than it would have been.

When the trees were gone, or too expensive to haul, a market was created for coal. People had known for a long time that coal was buried in central Illinois, but it was too expensive to dig it out as long as cheap wood was available. It wasn’t by the 1850s, and after Jacob Loose proved mining commercial viability at his mine at Iles Junction (at Iles Avenue between First and Fourth streets), mines were opened all over Sangamon County — as we are reminded whenever a McMansion on the far west side slumps on its foundation like a drunk on a bar stool after abandoned coal tunnels collapse beneath it.

Coal meant dirt and bad air and money, and it was used in transport (as a boiler fuel and to make electricity used to run streetcars), to heat buildings and transformed into a crude flammable gas to make light. And while natural gas and petroleum have eclipsed coal in most of those markets, coal dug from the area still provides most — too much — of Springfield’s electricity thanks to City Water, Light & Power.

For a few decades, the Illinois countryside consumed more energy, in the form of tractor fuel and farms chemicals, than it produced. Still does, in spite of the fact that so much of its corn is converted into fuel ethanol. I have written about corn ethanol for 30 years and still find new ways in which it is a bad idea. Wasteful of energy, money, soil and water, it is that happiest of phenomena to the social critic — a policy that is unwise in every conceivable respect, the energy version of the Blagojevich administration.

Wind on the other hand is alluring in its promise. It’s clean and renewable, and the technology is getting more reliable and more efficient all the time. It would even add to our barren countryside a welcome aesthetic dimension; the 67 turbines comprising the Railsplitter Wind Farm along Interstate 1-55 are both stately and graceful. While wind cannot (as the inventors of “wind wagons”once believed) provide transportation energy, it might someday replace a chunk of the Illinois coal used in power generation, and that is a good thing to anyone who does not own or work in a mine. There are troubling issues of costs. (More on those later perhaps.) Overall, interrupting the play of continental air masses over central Illinois seems the most promising way yet to extract energy from its flat expanse, at least until some clever Chinese figures out how to turn boring into liquid fuel.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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