A group of local investors is four years into a planning process that could eventually place 18 wind turbines in Arctander Township south of Sunburg. It could still be a couple years until the remaining details are wrapped up so Whirlwind Energy can erect the turbines planned for northwestern Kandiyohi County.
Whirlwind Energy grew out of a subcommittee of the Willmar/Kandiyohi County Economic Development Commission. After some research on alternative energy, members wanted to explore the business opportunities in that area. They formed Whirlwind, a limited liability corporation.
Bob Meyerson, a Whirlwind board member and an Atwater banker, had built a small wind turbine on his own land in 2005. He joked that when they first started studying wind energy, "I had a little bit of knowledge, and everybody else had less than that."
The group has since learned a lot about commercial wind systems and the permitting process for them, he said.
Ron Erpelding, a member of the Whirlwind board, said the group has already signed leases with some landowners in the area, and a number of landowners are interested. A meteorological tower is in place to gather data about the wind, and an avian study has been done to study the flight patterns of birds.
Two potential turbine sites have been discarded because they were in a black tern flight path, said Stan Simon of Simon Engineering. Simon is an investor in the project and also serves as a consultant. The group also has to gain approval from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Setbacks from homes, roads and wetlands must be taken into account.
The group is working to find a utility interested in purchasing the power from the turbines and must gain approval from a regulatory group governing the electric grid.
"It's a lengthy process, but it's got great merit, we think," Erpelding said. "We still have many, many big hurdles, and any one of them could derail the process."
Since Whirlwind started working on the plan for Arctander Township, the economy has gone through a deep recession and is now starting to climb up again, Simon said.
"Hopefully by the time the economy picks up, we should be ready to go," Simon said. "Renewables are the thing of the future."
The group is also working on obtaining its state permit. The state is "fairly demanding and fairly exacting in what we have to do," Simon said. "All those regulations are in there for a reason."
In its planning and in the siting for wind turbines, Whirlwind is trying to exceed the setback requirements, Simon said. "We don't want to cut corners."
So far, the project's investors are from west central Minnesota.
"We think that's the best way to go," Simon said. "The project could be a boon to the local economy."
The company raised an initial stake of $500,000 and is in the process of looking for more investors, Meyerson said. It can be a risky investment at this point, he added, because of all the permissions still needed from regulatory agencies and utilities.
"We're in it for everybody's benefit in the area," he said.
Simon said the total investment in the local economy could be as much as $100 million once the turbines are in operation.
Jan Donahue, who has experience with other wind developments, has been working with landowners on behalf of Whirlwind, and she's sold on the project.
"It's a good group of local people," she said. "Their heart's in the right place; it's not just about money."
Donahue said she is working on leases with landowners who will have turbines on their property. The group is also offering nearby landowners a participation agreement that will allow them to benefit from the project.
"Renewables and independent energy is a motivation for everyone on the board," Simon said. "This is a resource the good Lord has given us, and we need to use it in an intelligent way."
For more information about the company, go to the website, www.whirlwind-energy.com