Weather Forecast


Grant could blow future of wind power into town

A massive new wind turbine to be built sometime in the next year in Empire Township could help make Minnesota a national and perhaps international leader in wind energy research. It should also serve as a valuable teaching tool for some local students.

The new turbine, funded by a U.S. Department of Energy grant of up to $8 million and to be built on the University of Minnesota's UMore Park property, will serve as a research station to study subjects such as dealing with the strain high-wind days can put on the system and detecting problems with turbines early so they can be repaired before they become major issues.

The project will look at what University of Minnesota professor Fotis Sotiropoulos calls the "big issues" as United States universities and businesses work to come up with bigger and better turbine designs to help the country work toward a goal of providing 20 percent of the country's energy with wind.

"Everything we'll be addressing is really at the cutting edge," said Sotiropoulos, the director of the U of M's St. Anthony Falls Laboratory and the principal investigator on the project. "Through this project the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota have the opportunity to lead the way. To lead the nation, actually."

The project should also have some benefits much closer to home. As a partner in the project, Dakota County Technical College will install two significantly smaller turbines at its Rosemount campus. DCTC president Ron Thomas said those turbines -- and to an extent the larger UMore turbine -- will serve as valuable teaching tools for the school's electrical and lineworker programs.

The project also fits well with the school's commitment to be energy efficient and environmentally friendly. The two DCTC turbines will provide at least some power to the school building.

Thomas said he's "thrilled" to be part of the project.

"Anytime you can work with the U of M and all the other businesses and entities that are associated with this grant it's a win for our faculty and our students but maybe moreso for the community," Thomas said.

Other partners in the project include Siemens Energy, Barr Engineering, Eaton Corporation, Lockheed Martin and 3M.

The UMore turbine is one of just three wind research projects in the country funded by the DOE grants, and it's the biggest of the three. The UMore turbine will be a 2.3 megawatt Siemens structure. It will stand roughly 425 feet from its base to the tip of its blade. Those blades will have a diameter of about 330 feet.

"It's pretty monstrous," Sotiropoulos said.

By comparison, a 1.65 MW turbine owned by Carleton College in Northfield is about 360 feet tall and provides enough electricity to power about 600 typical households each year.

Sotiropoulos said it's not clear yet whether the power generated by the UMore turbine will go to any local homes or business. One of the reasons the DOE grant is needed, he said, is that research needs to take priority over power generation with the new turbines. The U of M is still trying to figure out whether the grant allows for the sale of any energy produced. If the power can't be put back into the grid the U of M will have to find ways to dissipate it.

There are plenty of other questions to be answered, too. Sotiropoulos said the turbine project fits well with the goals of a planned development on the UMore property. That development, which could add 20,000 to 30,000 residents over the next 25 years, sets aside about 80 acres for research and calls for the use of wind power to provide electricity to at least some of the homes. But there hasn't been a decision yet on just where any future research property or wind turbines would be located.

Sotiropoulos said the U of M is looking mainly at the east side of the UMore property, but there are environmental impact studies to complete and other issues to consider.

"It's not a small thing to put such a huge turbine anywhere," Sotiropoulos said.

Sotiropoulos hopes to have the turbine up and running by the end of 2010.