Great Plains Wind, No Problem for the Neighbors

Any two of the top 7 states in the Great Plains Region (GPR) could supply the entire electrical energy needs of the US from wind power.  But at what cost in terms of quality of life for the residents?  Not much it turns out.  The best sites have some of the lowest population densities in the country.  In addition much of the land is used for farming, ranching or hydrocarbon development.  Wind is symbiotic with those uses due to its small footprint and provides revenue for the land owners.   Finally, the best sites are well away from interstates and vacation destinations. Even very large deployments of wind turbines can be sited to have little impact on the vacationing public.  Further, landowners with a stake in the game tend to have positive feelings towards wind power so development in the GPR will have little hardship. Compared to other generation options the impact of wind turbines on residents in the GPR is pretty benign.

US Population Density Compared To Wind annotated

Figure  1: Comparison showing that the best wind sites correlate extremely well with the areas of lowest population density.  Click the image to enlarge.

The GPR offer some of the world’s best wind resource .  A surprisingly large region of the GPR is capable of delivering wind with a capacity factor 55% and near term advances in turbines are expected to yield 65% capacity factor wind.    This compares to a national average of about 33%.  The implications are that, GPR wind turbines can generate over 50% more electricity, than the national average and near term improvements  will push that closer to 100%.  That means that it will be lower cost and will make better use of transmission assets.  Currently PPAs are offering GPR wind power for as little as $25 per MWhr or, equivalently $0.025 / kwhr.

Use of the best Great Plains sites has been the limited due to lack of proximity of transmission lines to take the power to large loads (such as the East Coast).  That is changing.   Transmission infrastructure is being expanded and there are credible efforts to build HVDC transmission lines to carry large amounts of power East.  In Texas they have upgraded their power transmission system to carry 18GW of wind power.  But if wind is to become one of the nation’s primary generation assets capacity will need to increase by more than an order of magnitude.

Some distort the ramifications of this by suggesting that the space required is enormous and places an undue and unfair burden on the residents.  While it is true that the turbines will be spread over a geographically large region, only a small fraction of that land will be taken out of service. The rest will used in the same way as it had prior to the arrival of the wind turbines.  In nearly all cases, the land owners will economically benefit.  Studies have found that when land owners economically benefit their objections to wind power drop dramatically.  Figure 2 provides a sample of what is typical when sampling the reaction of land owners to wind development.

Wind Response to Noise - PedersenFigure 2:  Response to wind power is highly correlated to economic benefit.  Pederson et al.

Great Plains siting of wind turbines will impact very few people and the majority of those who will be affected will directly benefit . In large swaths of the Great Plains, there is less than 1 family per square mile.   Much of the land is in use either for industrial scale agriculture or for oil and gas development.  And much of the agriculture is drip irrigation using circular plots which leave the corners available for the turbines. Google earth provides and excellent resource for evaluating the land use and coverage.  It is readily apparent that the best sites are either remote, used compatibly with agriculture, or both. Population map:

US Population Density by CountyFigure 3:   US population density by county throughout the USA.  Population density map info HERE .

US Population Density by Census BlockFigure 4:   US population density by Census block.  Note clustering by the roads and rivers indicating that the population in remote areas, illustrated in the county map, tends to cluster and much of the county is even less population dense. Credit Harry Kao

US KS Farm SizeFigure  5: KS Farm Size

US Farm Size

Figure  6: US Farm Size

It is helpful to compare the population density where the turbines are now to the suggested Great Plains sites.  The map below gives a good sense of the distribution of wind farms throughout the country.  Notice the sites in scenic regions heavily traveled by vacationers in VT, NY, and MA.  Also, even the rural areas of IL and IA have significantly higher population density suggesting that people live in the areas who are not financially benefiting directly from the wind turbines as they do in the agricultural areas of SW KS for example. Wind Development 2012Figure 7:  The map above shows where wind farms had been built as of 2012.   

Note that in KS the population in the SW corner, where the best wind is, is concentrated in the 3 towns of Liberal, Dodge City, and Garden City.  The rest of the region is dominated by drip irrigation farms which are highly compatible with wind turbines since the corners are often not cultivated.  The farms in KS for example, can be viewed on Google Earth and observed to have fewer than 1 dwelling per square mile, in other words, extraordinarily scarcely populated.  And while the Grand Canyon can make similar claims of low population density, Southeastern KS is not a tourist destination.  And the bulk of people taking in KS for transcontinental vacation drives, do so from Rte. 70 far to the North. NE’s Cherry county is larger than CT yet has a population of about 6000 mostly in the county seat of Valentine.  Much of the population is concentrated in the county seat of Valentine.  Many are families so the dwelling density outside of Valentine is under 1 dwelling per 4 miles. Photo of drip irrigation and then higher altitude photos of many drip irrigation: Wind Remote Siting TX drip irrigation

Figure 8: Photo showing wind turbines and large farms coexisting.

Drip irrigation, common in most of the areas that are excellent wind sites, is highly compatible with wind. Prime KS Farmland is also prime KS Wind land.  Much of SW KS, the region with the best wind resource is sparsely populated.  The region is summarized with images below.  The first provides a sense of scale of the area showing about 250 square miles with no major roads.  The next image is zoomed in to show the style of farming.  7 1/2 square miles are shown.  Some structures are apparent.  However the next image zooms in for a closer view and shows that the structures are service structures not homes.  While there are some homes in the region, the vast majority of structures are service structures, wells or Oil and Gas service structures.  Building out this area in wind turbines will have negligible impact on quality of life.

KS Farmland Figure 9: P~250 square miles of KS farms:

KS Dwelling Free 7-5 sq mile

Figure 10: P 7.5 square miles of farms with structures visible.

KS Farm Service Structures Figure 11: P Zoom in showing structures to be service structures not dwellings. Land despoiled due to drilling.

TX Wind gas and agricultureFigure 12: P Roughly 200 square miles of drilling in TX:

TX hydrocarbonFigure 13: P Hydrocarbon Impact on TX up close:

We distinguish between Direct Impact Area and Total Wind Plant Area.  The Direct Impact area is land disturbed taken out of use for the lifetime of the wind farm.  This is area is very small, among the smallest of all electricity generation sources.  The Total Wind Plant Area is the coverage area and is relevant when talking about quality of life issues.  It is the area taken up by the wind farm.  All but the Direct Impact Area is available for other uses such as ranching, farming and hydrocarbon development.  To assess the total coverage area we assume that the turbines will be sited with 100m or higher towers allowing for 50% CF.  For coverage area we use 10 MW / mi^2.*  Consider a high wind penetration scenario of 50% on an energy basis.  The EIA projects 5 Trillion kwhrs of electricity will be used in 2040.  This is roughly 20% above today’s usage.  Under this scenario if electricity generation were 50% wind it would require generation of 2.5 Trillion kwhrs.  Dividing by hours in a year and assuming 100% capacity factor this would require 300 GW of generation.  However we are assuming 50% capacity factor so this needs to be doubled to 600 GW nameplate capacity.  Using 10 MW / mi^2 this yeilds 60,000 mi^2 of coverage area or about 250 miles square.

Use Overlay for USAFigure 14:  Land Use of wind in the US.  The small square in KS is the amount of land Directly by enough wind turbines to provide 50% of the US electricity needs.  The 5 large squares show the Total Impact Area.  That is, the total area required for the wind farms.

The Direct Impact area is much smaller.  Using the NREL numbers and adjusting for capacity factor it comes out to about 256 MW / mi^2.  However the study was based upon windpower with a 30% CF and we are assuming 50%CF so this increases the power to 425 MW / mi^2.  Powering half of the country with wind in 2040 would require about 300GW of generation.  This gives a direct impact area of 700 mi^2 which is equivalent to a square approximately 27 miles on a side.

Wind Coverage area


Primary points: – The best sites for wind are in sparsely populated areas. – Visual pollution is a red herring and perpetuated by people who are trying to fight wind on an emotional rather than factual basis. – When compared with fossil fuel sources challenges, such as power plants sited in urban and suburban areas and mountain top removal, wind has the lowest impact.  While there is a great deal of anti-wind sentiment, there is clearly a systematic effort at making emotional appeals to dissuade people from using it.  When the full spectrum of externalities are taken into account, wind, well, it simply blows away the competition.

This Post offers an overview of the comparative land use requirements for various generation technologies.

This paper looks at land use requirements for wind power based upon 2009 data.  It should be used as an upper bound since the regions discussed in this post are selected for their higher than typical capacity factors which yield lower land use requirements.

NIMBY, Land Use, Great Plains, Central Region


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9 Responses to Great Plains Wind, No Problem for the Neighbors

  1. Bas Gresnigt says:

    Hey Clayton,

    Amazed that they seem to install roads towards the wind turbines. Here the turbines are installed at (or very near) existing roads. Taking into account the usual distance between big wind turbines, it doesn’t matter whether a turbine is installed 100m away from it’s ideal position.

    But may be they are installed on top of hills (I couldn’t see that)?

    Kind regards,


    Btw. I tried to access the linked site for this comment but was stopped, as it needs a password which I didn’t see in your mail.


    • Enoch1680 says:

      In many cases that is also true here particularly as you get out into the rural farmland. They simply use the roads that are already there to give farmers access to their fields. As you get into the great plains areas it is even more favorable. As you mentioned, it is fiction to suggest that 5 MW of wind requires a square mile of land.


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