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The Future is in the Flatlands
Alex Steffen, 8 Sep 04

A subsidiary of the Columbia Rural Electric Association is building a 1,500-square-mile Wi-Fi hot spot in Eastern Washington State. It works on that scale because it's flat, really flat out there, with few buildings and competing frequencies to get in the way. (You can find good explanation in John Cook's "Rolling wheat fields are also Wi-Fi country").

This is, to me, yet another little sign that there may be unexpected ways to avoid the coming collapse of North American plains farming; that the future may look very different out there in the flatlands; that, in fact, some of the poorest parts of North America might be able to leapfrog in the most unanticipated ways.

We've already talked about biomimicry, smart-breeding and the emergence of a model of prairie-like neo-biological farms. Mix that model with other breakthroughs, like precision farming and climate-friendly farming, stir in our ever-increasing ability to know nature through ubiquitous computing, remote sensing and evolutionary computer models, then dollop out in healthy doses of transcommercial arrangements like farm-to-family community supported agriculture models and you've already added a whole different spin to the phrase "future farmers of America."

But grains aren't the only crops the plains could serve up. Wind power is plentiful at sites all across the middle of the continent. It's clean. It'll never run out. It pays real money. And the high plains have got more of it than we'll ever need.


Wind power is growing by leaps and bounds (from 4,800 megawatts in 1995 to 31,100 in 2002, according to Worldwatch), and as more people build wind farms, the price of wind power drops. In fact, some recent wind projects are already cranking out electricity which is cheaper than nuclear energy and extremely competitive with coal and oil, with none of the radioactivity or greenhouse gas pollution. As Lester Brown notes, each time we've doubled the amount of wind power we're using, the price has dropped by fifteen percent. And as far as we can tell, we're nowhere near tapping out the prime wind power sites or maxing-out the cost savings.

When wind power's price drops to a competitive level, the U,S. Federal Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratory estimates, wind could quickly supply 20% of the nation's electricity. Many other researchers think that, given consistent regulations, equal access to new transmission lines, and more modern power grids (which need to be built anyway, as the Great Blackout of 2003 showed), wind power could economically supply a third of the nation's electricity by 2020.

The American Wind Energy Association goes even farther, claiming that "North Dakota alone is theoretically capable (if there were enough transmission capacity) of producing enough wind-generated power to meet more than one-third of U.S. electricity demand." (Indeed, the wind-swept American High Plains states -- the Dakotas, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, Kansas and Minnesota -- have more than enough theoretical wind capacity to fuel the entire U.S. economy.) Regardless of whose figures you believe, wind's realistic North American potential is still staggering. The wind-hydrogen combination makes it even more staggering.

((The potential worldwide may be even more impressive, by the way. The U.S. Department of Energy has concluded that the world's wind could generate more than 15 times as much energy than the world is currently using, while a 2002 Danish study, "Wind Force 12," found that with even comparatively modest technological advances and policy support, wind could supply 12% of world electricity by 2020.))

But there's more. A buffalo commons -- the idea of bringing the buffalo herds and native grasslands back to the Great Plains, and managing them as a sustainable resource -- would work perfectly with prairie-like farms and wind energy arrays:

"The Buffalo Commons means the day when the fences come down. The buffalo will migrate freely across a restored sea of grass, like wild salmon flow from the rivers to the oceans and back. Settled areas can --like they do in Kenya-- fence the animals out, not fence them in."

Imagine vast herds of beef bison grazing biomimetic tall-grass prairie-like fields beneath enormous blue skies and the slowly turning props of tens of thousands of three-hundred foot tall windmills. Imagine Imagine sitting on a hill, watching that, and surfing the web on your laptop while you do it.

Wind-hydrogen, wild bison, biomimicry and WiFi -- there are still some pieces missing, but I'm tellin' you, things could get strange out there on the Big Flat.

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Hi Alec, the wind-hydrogen link has expired. Here's an alternative:

Cool technology - I'd love to know what the costs are!

Posted by: John on 9 Sep 04

Gotta have wolves. And wolf cams.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 9 Sep 04

Wolf cams, ubiquitous sensors... and Alex pegged the mechanism to make it possible, right there at the beginning of his post: the WiFi-superhotspot. "Smart space" is an enabler of information-rich settings. And as cool as superhotspot 802.11 is, the next generation protocol -- 802.16, or "WiMax" -- has even greater potential: base stations have a service radius of 30 miles, and each station can support 70 Mbps of simultaneous traffic.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 9 Sep 04



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