Western communities exploring wind power look to U of M-Morris for help in finding their way
MORRIS -- Wind power looks increasingly like a rising economic star for western Minnesota.
But before the three-bladed turbines rise in their local skies, representatives from communities in Swift, Chippewa and Yellow Medicine counties went looking to the University of Minnesota-Morris for help. There, wind power research being conducted by the West Central Minnesota Research and Outreach Center is helping find the answers they seek on the economic and logistical challenges of tapping this energy source.
Researchers have been collecting data ever since a 1.65-megawatt Vesta wind turbine began turning out electricity to help power the UMM campus on March 8, 2005. The 235-foot-tall tower now a landmark for the campus area is demonstrating the practicality of producing electricity in a region where the wind power is rated as being one to two steps below that found on the Buffalo Ridge.
All the same, the wind blows strong in all of Minnesota's western counties, and so is the interest in it: Nearly 40 representatives from the communities of Appleton, Benson, Granite Falls, Milan, Montevideo, and Watson participated Thursday in a tour, which was sponsored by Clean Up our River Environment and the West Central Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnership.
Wind power projects are being discussed in many of these communities. On the eve of the tour, Montevideo residents interested in the possibility of a private wind power project met to look at the possibilities.
In Swift County, Andrew Falk of rural Murdock is leading a group hoping to develop an 18.9-megawatt wind farm east of Benson. Falk said they are now completing the studies required to connect the proposed wind farm to the transmission grid. It could provide enough electricity to power 6,000 homes.
In Granite Falls, the municipal utility is in the early stages of exploring the possibility of a wind turbine project much like that now being pursued by the Willmar Municipal Utilities.
The needed wind resources are available, according to Mike Reese of the West Central Research and Outreach Center. But he cautioned that many factors, from the elevation of specific sites to access to the transmission grid, must be analyzed before any project is attempted.
Getting approval to connect to the transmission grid is the "biggest hurdle for wind development right now in the state,' according to Reese.
Entrepreneurs must fund studies that can cost as much as $50,000 before the Midwest Independent System Operator which oversees the transmission network will allow a project to plug into it.
Wind projects must line up in a first-come, first-serve queue system with coal and other power plant projects. All are vying for access to a transmission system that is reaching capacity.
Fortunately, plugging into the transmission grid is not the only option. Increasingly, smaller-scale projects are looking at "behind the meter" projects, according to Reese.
For example, a municipal utility could distribute its wind-generated electricity on its own wires. It is like sending cars on residential streets instead of placing trucks on the highway. It reduces the load that must be carried on the big transmission lines.
The local utility benefits by offsetting its purchase of electricity from outside sources. It also allows the local utility to realize something closer to the retail value for its energy.
That's clearly an advantage. Falk noted that entrepreneurs looking at large projects must negotiate a power purchase agreement with a major utility. The utilities seek a low, wholesale rate, and can take their time in reaching a deal. "I wish I could go directly to the consumers,' said Falk. "It would be better for everyone involved.'
No matter how they go about it, wind power projects that are locally owned provide the biggest economic rewards for the region, according to Dr. Arne Kildegaard, professor of economics with the University in Morris. When compared to outside corporate ownership, a study led by Kildegaard found that local ownership provides five times as much value-added earnings for a local economy, and three times as many jobs.
Kildegaard said Germany and Denmark, two of the world's leading countries in wind development, encourage community ownership through legislation. More than 80 percent of the wind power development in those countries is community-owned as a result.
In the U.S., less than 1 percent is community-owned. "The way we do it now is not as friendly as it needs to be to smaller developers,' he said.