Catch the Wind
Minnesota's wind-power industry is picking up speed.
By Mary Hoff
Photography by Michael Petersen
The sight could well make you feel as though you've awakened in a surrealistic world - one in which past, present, and future have been cut up and pasted together into a single scene, like those collages schoolchildren make for book reports and social studies projects. At your feet, fat-leaved soybeans stand in tidy, timeless rows. Above, the achingly blue sky, interrupted here and there by scudding clouds, stretches from horizon to horizon. Connecting the two are hundreds - count 'em, hundreds - of skyscraping white towers, each standing 10 times as tall as the faded farmhouse on the side of the road, each holding aloft a gigantic propellerlike device turning cartwheels in the wind.
This place is Buffalo Ridge, a glacier-deposited rise that runs diagonally across southwestern Minnesota. Ten years ago it was archetypal farmland, with barns, silos, and expansive fields divvied up by dusty county roads. Today the fields are dotted with 470 wind generators, towering like giant albino pinwheels amid the crops. Together these machines produce enough electricity to feed the hungry light bulbs, televisions, air conditioners, and other appliances of more than 100,000 households.
This ridge and these towers are icons of a new wave of interest in wind energy that is sweeping across Minnesota. From Pipestone in the southwest to Grand Marais on the North Shore, individuals, small businesses, and multinational corporations are joining the rush to harvest watts from wind.
"Minnesota is neck and neck with Iowa as the third-largest wind-producing state behind California and Texas," says Lincoln County commissioner and farmer Jim Nichols, who has spent the past decade promoting wind energy in the Buffalo Ridge area. "We came from nowhere 10 years ago to be the third largest, and they're building right now down by Murray County another 85 megawatts. It's a quantum leap, considering we didn't have anything. It's been a great 10 years."
Sprouting Like Dandelions
The notion of tapping wind energy is far from new. Wind-propelled boats sailed the Nile River in Africa some 7,000 years ago. Wind-powered machines were grinding grain and pumping water in Persia, China, and Europe centuries before the start of the Industrial Revolution. In frontier America, settlers built windmills to draw drinking water from the ground. In the 1920s wind-driven electrical generators brought light and radio to isolated Great Plains residents.
The Rural Electrification Administration's efforts to stitch the prairies with power lines and the availability of cheap fossil fuels post-World War II sent wind power to the back of the class for decades. Then, in the 1970s, with the Mideast oil embargo and growing environmental consciousness, America once again turned its attention to wind. Energetic entrepreneurs developed and applied new wind technologies - particularly in California, where state tax breaks provided added incentive for commercial-scale development.
For many years wind power in Minnesota remained largely the purview of idealistic innovators with breezy back yards. Then, in 1994, the state Legislature passed a law that would dramatically change that picture. In exchange for permission to expand storage of spent fuels at its Prairie Island nuclear plant, the Legislature ordered Xcel Energy (then Northern States Power Co.) to add 425 megawatts of wind to its energy mix by 2003.
This mandate not only got Xcel Energy thoroughly engaged, it also sparked a pervasive can-do attitude toward wind energy in Minnesota. Wind turbines began sprouting up like dandelions on a freshly mowed lawn. Developers erected towers by the dozens on Buffalo Ridge to meet Xcel Energy's new obligation. In 1997 Lac qui Parle Valley School installed a 225-kilowatt (1,000 kilowatts equals one megawatt) wind generator. Two years later Elk River–based Great River Energy started gathering power from the skies over Murray County. Moorhead Public Service has erected two 750-kilowatt wind towers to supply electricity to its customers. Other wind turbines began feeding electricity on contract to Otter Tail Power, Alliant Energy, and Missouri River Energy Services/ Worthington Public Utilities. Macalester College in St. Paul began generating electricity with a wind turbine. All together, more than 500 large and 130 small (40 kilowatts or less) wind towers have been installed around the state - and more are in the works.
On calm days, Dave and Joanie Ellison get their electricity the regular way - from a power line running from Lake Region Electric Cooperative to their sheep farm southeast of Pelican Rapids. But when the wind kicks up, it's another story. The 120-foot-tall, 20-kilowatt wind turbine they erected six years ago not only meets their electricity needs, it also feeds excess to Lake Region for other customers' use.
Why wind? Like many people, the Ellisons like wind energy largely for what it's not. It's not a source of nuclear waste. It's not pressure to open wild lands like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. It's not a source of climate-disrupting greenhouse gases, fish-contaminating mercury, lung-damaging particles, or lake-polluting acid rain, as are the fossil fuels that produce most of our state's electricity.
"We've been trying to set up our lifestyle to be as environmentally responsible as we can," Dave Ellison says. He figures the excess energy the couple sells back to the power company reduces the utility's release of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning by 20,000 pounds each year. "I feel real good about what we're doing," he says.
Buffalo Ridge wind advocate Nichols appreciates the environmental benefits too. But to him, wind's biggest draw is economic. He calls wind energy a farmer's "third crop."
"I've always felt probably the growth potential for farmers was energy, because it seemed we always flooded the market with food," he says. Farmers who lease their land to wind developers commonly receive $2,000 to $5,000 per tower per year. Those who install their own commercial-scale turbines - and more and more people are eyeing this option - stand to do even better.
"This is what's growing like wildfire," says Lisa Daniels, executive director of Twin Cities–based Windustry, a nonprofit organization that provides rural landowners and communities with information on economic aspects of wind- energy development. "Farmers in rural communities have taken a little while to see how this wind energy stuff works and how to get involved in it, but they're catching on very quickly."
Wind energy also brings an economic boon for the community at large. Installation of 107 megawatts of wind capacity supported 150 construction-related jobs and 31 operation and maintenance positions in Lincoln County, according to Windustry. The organization also estimates that installation of a 100-megawatt wind farm brings an added $370,000 in tax revenue over the project's lifetime to support local government services.
Increasingly, utilities are seeing wind power as sound business. It's the cheapest source of renewable energy in the state. And it's starting to compete with conventional fuels too. Xcel Energy's estimate of 2.5 to 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity produced from new wind facilities compares quite favorably with figures for new coal (3.5 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour) and combined-cycle natural gas (3.5 to 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour) facilities. In fact, Xcel Energy included 450 megawatts of wind power in an expansion package it announced last summer because it made economic sense.
"Adding those megawatts actually reduced the cost," says Jim Alders, manager of regulatory projects for Xcel Energy. "We're really encouraged . . . that wind power could be economically added to our resource mix."
Which Way It Blows
Of course, this being an imperfect world, wind-energy development is not without challenges. A big one is wind's rather random nature.
"Wind is an intermittent resource; therefore, you have got to have a plan in place to fill in when all of a sudden wind stops," says Alders. For a small generator like the Ellisons', that usually means a tie to the local utility. For utilities, it means having coal, nuclear, or other power plants ready to pick up the slack.
There's also the challenge posed by the need to move wind-generated electricity from where it's made to where it's used. Depending on the location, that may mean installing power lines. And even if power lines are already in place, it can be tough for wind generators to gain access to them because the line capacity may already be fully contracted.
Problems with birds have given wind energy a bit of a bad name. Some early California wind towers were dubbed "condor Cuisinarts" because of their (literal) impact on birds. Since then, improved design and siting have reduced the toll. (For example, using solid instead of latticed towers prevented birds from perching and nesting there.) Data from Buffalo Ridge show little if any bird mortality associated with collisions with wind towers, Alders says. Follow-up studies are now underway to evaluate the effect on bats as well as the indirect impacts on birds through habitat disruption. (See sidebar.)
Aesthetics are a concern as well. Some people dislike the sight of tall towers or transmission lines, or the sound of turbine blades turning in the wind. J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficient Economy, points out it's important to put things into context. Beauty, in this case, may be in the eye of the visionary.
"Coal mines aren't very pretty either, and global warming that's going to destroy the northern forests in the Boundary Waters isn't very desirable," Hamilton says. "What you're seeing when you look at [wind towers] is the clean technology of a future that we're going to be proud to pass on to our children."
More Power To Us
Minnesotans can expect to see and hear plenty more about wind power in the months ahead.
Leading the way in wind energy growth will be the addition of large-scale turbines to meet new obligations taken on by Xcel Energy in recent months. Earlier this year the Public Utilities Commission approved the utility's plan to build a new power line in the Buffalo Ridge area - under the condition that it add 365 megawatts of wind power in the process. And the 2003 Legislature granted Xcel permission to store yet more spent nuclear fuel at Prairie Island in exchange for a commitment to contract for an additional 300 megawatts of wind energy by 2010 and obtain 10 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2015. All told, the utility is slated to expand its wind-power contracts from the current 302 megawatts to 1,125 megawatts by 2010.
A number of other wind projects are in the works as well. According to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Otter Tail Power plans to install 21 megawatts of wind capacity this year, and Great River Energy hopes to have a total of 100 megawatts on line by 2005. Wayzata High School is considering building a wind tower to supply electricity to its campus. A citizen group called RENew Northfield is working with Northfield Public Schools and Carleton College to install two wind turbines to meet much of the schools' electricity needs.
Minnesota currently gets about 1.5 percent of its electrical energy from wind. According to Hamilton, wind energy could meet 20 percent of the state's electricity needs within 15 to 20 years.
Who Owns The Wind?
Federal and state tax breaks and other incentives will likely lead many others to take a closer look at developing wind energy. The 2002 Farm Bill contained several provisions favorable to wind-energy developers, and the federal energy bill now under discussion could bring even more. Two state laws passed in 2001 - one setting a good-faith goal of meeting 10 percent of the state's electricity needs with renewable energy sources by 2015, and the other requiring utilities to offer alternative energy to their customers - send the signal to potential developers that Minnesota is a wind-friendly state.
"A clear policy signal from the state helps create a market: It says energy companies will buy this electricity," says Hamilton.
Back on Buffalo Ridge, residents are busy making plans for participating in Xcel Energy's latest growth spurt on a more personal level than they did last time around, when big corporations did the developing. Now the emphasis is on local ownership.
"What we've seen here is outside developers being active and very powerful players," says Nobles County farmer and wind proponent David Benson. "We're happy to see those; there's no question in my mind that we want to move as far as we can and as fast as we can toward renewable energy for the health and the viability of the planet. But in my mind, it's much more valuable to have the wind broadly owned, or at least have the opportunity for broad ownership."
Nichols, for his part, hopes to finally install a tower of his own to harvest the abundant "third crop" from the land he's farmed for decades.
"Wind and electricity are just a perfect match - the good Lord is looking out for us," he says. "What I want to leave my kids is a wind turbine. That's the legacy."
Stillwater, Minn., science writer Mary Hoff's family windmill caught the wind for more than a century before it finally blew over in 2001.