LAKE BENTON, Minn. - For generations, the bittersweet question around the Schardin family table was this: What on Earth was Theodore Schardin thinking in 1884 when he stopped his wagon here, on a desolate ridge blasted by every last gust of wind that swept across the prairies?
All of a sudden, though, the Schardins and others who have been struggling for a living in some of America's windiest parts have found themselves feeling pretty lucky that their ancestors staked out land where they did.
That blasted wind, it turns out, was worth something after all. In a boom that seemed unimaginable a few years ago, wind power has become the nation's fastest-growing source of electricity, with capacity expected to double in the next 13 months. And as utility companies race to line up new supplies, farmers such as Conrad Schardin are counting crisp cash in their pockets and eyeing the sleek windmills known as turbines in their fields.
"Basically, they're paying me to let the wind blow," said Schardin, 38, who has found that selling wind rights to his great-grandfather's homestead can earn him a lot more than annual crops of corn and beans could.
Turning wind's power into electricity is nothing new, of course. Windmills were common in the Midwest until the arrival of rural electrification, and commercial wind farms have contributed to California's electricity supply since 1981 as part of the response to successive energy crises.
But what is now under way, most experts say, is a transformation on a much larger scale. With the development of bigger, more sophisticated turbines, the cost of wind-generated electricity, once seen as prohibitive, is now nearly competitive with that of its rivals, all but eliminating what was once a major barrier.
For now, wind still generates far less than 1 percent of the nation's electricity, with the bulk of the projects in California. But across the country, wind is increasingly being regarded by utility companies as worthy of a larger role as the utilities struggle to meet soaring electrical demands at a time when oil and gas prices are steep and volatile.
By the end of next year, the Energy Department projects, some 4,600 megawatts of wind power generation will be in place, enough to provide for 1.7 million households. That would be an increase from 2,500 megawatts today. Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush support tax incentives to promote the use of wind over more polluting fuels, so most experts believe that no matter who ends up in the White House, the trend is unlikely to wane.
"My belief is the current boom will continue," said Charles Lindemann, director of energy supply policy at the Edison Electric Institute, an arm of the utility industry.
This is giving rise to bold new dreams in places such as Lake Benton; Storm Lake, Iowa; and Pecos County, Texas, which are or soon will be home to some of the biggest wind farms in the world.
With several large projects scheduled to be completed next year, Texas, best known for oil and gas, is now expected to be the next center of wind power development. Ranchers and farmers more accustomed to being paid for what lies under the ground are being offered royalties for what blows across it.
"We've got lots of wind," said Pat Wood, Bush's appointee as chairman of the Texas Public Utilities Commission, "and it's about time that people figured out a way to make some money off it."
In Minnesota, landowners in the Lake Benton area can earn about $2,000 a year for each of the 200-foot-tall turbines, which stretch across 30 miles of farmland on the high ground known as Buffalo Ridge. Some farms have one or two of the turbines; others have more than a dozen. Each turbine takes up just one-eighth of an acre, and farmers and ranchers are free to use the remaining land, though few crops clear more than $40 an acre.
"We cussed that wind for years," said Jim Nichols, a Lincoln County commissioner, "and now it is turning out to be a godsend."
Wind farms have sprung up recently in other parts of the United States, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia. A $16 million project recently began operating in Madison, N.Y., about 80 miles west of Albany.
But because the amount of power available increases exponentially with wind speed, the attention of large-scale projects has been fixed on places ranked even higher for wind energy potential by the Energy Department, including the Great Plains states and Texas, regarded as the respective Saudi Arabia and Kuwait of wind power.
Together, South Dakota, North Dakota and Texas have sufficient wind resources to provide electricity for the entire United States, according to studies cited by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.
Last year, Richardson set a goal of making wind's share of American electrical capacity 5 percent by 2020.