Sometimes infrastructure developments end up following rather than driving the site decision. In the case of wind farm development, for example, it simply has to be that way. Wind turbines must be installed where the steady wind is, whether or not the areas have decent transportation infrastructure in place.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, the U.S. wind power industry installed more than 1,100 megawatts of new capacity in the first quarter of 2011, and wind plants with another 5,600 megawatts of capacity are under construction. That's double the pace of the past couple of years. The biggest wind power states at the moment are Texas, Iowa, California, Minnesota, and Washington; states adding the most capacity so far this year have been Minnesota, Illinois, Washington, Idaho, and Nebraska. The biggest project installed in the first quarter was Big Sky, located in rural Illinois to the west of Chicago.
Like Big Sky, most wind developments tend to be in rural areas, sometimes miles away from even a small town, according to Jerry Grundtner, who is heavily involved in wind farm construction with M.A. Mortenson Co. of Minneapolis. Lots of logistical and infrastructure challenges result from trying to build in these remote locations.
Wind turbines tend to be built in the middle of agricultural fields, attached to towers 300 feet tall or higher that are constructed on foundations containing up to 400 cubic yards of concrete. It takes a huge crawler crane weighing up to 600 tons to do the job, and there's usually no road leading to the site. And consider that a major wind farm development will include many of these turbines, planted across an area encompassing maybe 80 square miles, according to Grundtner. With regard to transportation infrastructure, developments such as these often require a lot of permanent or temporary road widening, and sometimes the use of cribbing or bedding to allow cranes to crawl cross-country where there are no roads.
As with wind power installations, hydroelectric projects must take place where the energy source is, whether or not the infrastructure is there. A giant drill named Big Becky recently finished digging infrastructure that will eventually bring more renewable power to a large swath of Ontario. Becky dug a 10-kilometer tunnel under Niagara Falls that will bring an extra 500 cubic meters of water every second to the Sir Adam Beck Generating Station, creating enough new hydro power to serve some 160,000 Ontario homes. It's part of a major initiative to boost clean power infrastructure across the province; in fact, there is more hydropower scheduled to come online in Ontario in the next eight years than in the previous four decades.
With all of the wind and hydropower infrastructure in the works across North America, there should be plenty of energy to keep "the cloud" afloat for years to come.