Inside the First Wind-Powered City in America

Rock Port, Mo., may be a small rural town, but it has big energy ambition.

ByBarbara Pinto

May 19, 2008— -- Rural Rock Port, Mo., looks like just about any small farm town -- with mostly cattle pastures and cornfields. But there is something remarkable on the horizon.

Peeking out above the rooftops and the tree line stand four towering windmills. The sleek 40-story turbines spin like pinwheels in the afternoon breeze, harvesting Rock Port's newest crop, wind-generated electricity.

The turbines now power every computer, every appliance and every light in town -- even the only traffic light on Main Street -- making this city of 1,300 the first and only in the nation to run completely on wind power.

"It's a unique small town," said Eric Chamberlain, who runs the wind farm from his family's funeral home.

Chamberlain is also the local undertaker, which is how he got the wind farm idea in the first place.

"I was driving a funeral procession through Iowa," Chamberlain said. "We drove past an operating wind farm, and I was fascinated with the towers."

So Chamberlain began investigating how he could build a wind farm in Rock Port. It became something of an obsession for him.

At his office at the funeral home there are caskets on display along one wall, but tacked on another wall are wind maps.

"I grew up here. I lived here as a child, and I thought, well, you know, it felt breezy," he said.

Turns out it was. Rock Port is one of the windiest spots in the state.

After weeks of monitoring the wind, Chamberlain recruited the local power company and Wind Capital Group, the developers of a wind farm going up down the road.

They erected four turbines, which are expected to produce 16 million kilowatt hours of electricity every year -- 3 million more kilowatt hours than the city is expected to use.

"On most days, this is not only powering this town, but selling enough energy to power another town of its size," said Tom Carnahan, president of Wind Capital Group.

"What it's going to allow is to keep prices steady," Carnahan said. "They're not going to see the same kinds of increases in prices that other towns will."

That is good news at Rock Port Telephone Company, the biggest power user in town.

The phone company's electric bill already tops $8,000 a month. Most of that cost is powering a data storage center that backs up critical computerized information for companies from New York to California. When it comes to security, the company's rural location is one of its major assets.

"We are not what you'd call an important target," said Michael Goins, the chief technology officer at Midwest Data Center, an offshoot of the telephone company.

And now, the windmills powering their operation supply another safeguard.

"In the event there's a major power outage, you can't stop the wind. We're still producing energy and still running our servers and equipment," Goins said.

"This should help us to be able to stabilize our costs for our company, which we think is great," Rock Port Telephone controller Rick Bradley said.

Wind Capital Group executives said they expect having the windmills will freeze the electric bills of every home and business in Rock Port at current levels for at least 25 years.

You would think it might be tough to convince farmers in the nation's heartland to give up their valuable acreage to plant giant windmills. But that was not a problem in Rock Port.

Land owners are paid anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 a year for the half acre of property surrounding each turbine. That is more than they could earn growing soybeans or corn.

Mick Lewis has 89 rolling acres of cattle pasture, and one acre of windmills.

"I would rather farm the wind," Lewis explains with a wry smile. "The reason being, it's a lot easier. You're not out there early in the morning, and you don't have to worry all season."

Two of Rock Port's turbines share a patch of ground with grazing cattle -- all visible from Lewis' kitchen window. For this harvest, Lewis can simply watch the blades of the windmills spin, and flip on his coffee maker.

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