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Wind, 'the last crop to harvest,' grabs attention of more farmers across the area

Large wind turbines have been part of the landscape south of Redwood Falls since 2003, when the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency erected twin 1.65-megawatt units. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

REDWOOD FALLS -- If attendance at the mid-winter seed corn meeting seems down, it might just be because everyone is at the wind power meeting instead.

What some are calling the "last crop to harvest" is capturing growing attention from farmers and other landowners in western Minnesota, as evidenced by wind energy forums Wednesday night in Madison and Thursday in Redwood Falls.

Both sessions attracted more than 100 participants. It was no surprise to Cheryl Glaeser with the Southwest Initiative Foundation, one of the event's sponsors.

She said the Initiative Foundation has been conducting a number of renewable energy sessions across the 18 counties of southwestern Minnesota, and each has attracted crowds ranging from 80 to 125.

By a show of hands in Redwood Falls, more than one-half of those who filled the room said they were farmers or rural landowners. By another show of hands, many also indicated that they have already been contacted by companies interested in developing the wind resources on their land.

"It's a big resource for us, a huge cash crop," said Dan Juhl, founder of Juhl Wind of Woodstock, Minn., and one of the state's leading developers of community-owned wind systems. Juhl's company works only with wind developments in which local investors and landowners own the project.

Local ownership is important, according to Glaeser. Studies show that locally owned projects have two to three times the job impact and three to four times the economic benefits to a local economy.

Juhl is often fighting a headwind when it comes to promoting community ownership. Due to the large capital costs involved in developing a wind turbine farm -- as much as $250 million in some cases -- large multinational companies have taken the lead, he said.

As a result, most of the thousands of wind turbines that line the Buffalo Ridge in Minnesota are owned by foreign multinational companies, according to Juhl. He said the profits they take represent an $80 million to $90 million revenue stream that is annually leaving the state for the pockets of multinational investors.

The opportunities to keep more of that money here are getting better. Juhl said new regulations on how power projects can access the electrical transmission grid favor "first ready, first served" over those who happened to have the money to be first in line. The priority for ready-to-go projects should favor smaller-scale, community projects, Juhl said.

Minnesota also offers other incentives for community-owned wind development, and it shows, according to Melissa Peterson, program analyst with Windustry of Minnesota. There is currently 1,300 megawatts of developed wind power in Minnesota, of which 320 megawatts is community-owned. That is the biggest share of the 776 total megawatts of community-owned wind power in the U.S.

Landowners who do not want to invest in wind projects still have opportunities to realize revenue from them. Developers are generally paying $3,000 to $6,000 per megawatt of capacity per year to landowners for the right to erect turbines, or sharing 2 to 3 percent of the royalties from the electrical production, according to Juhl.

Landowners can also take advantage of wind power by erecting their own smaller units designed mainly to power their farms and sell excess back to the grid. Interest in what is known as "small" wind has grown to the point that both the Redwood Falls and Madison sessions devoted nearly one-half of their time to the topic.

Some of the systems now available pair solar power panels with wind turbines, and allow users to go entirely off the grid. Juhl said his company's corporate office has not had to purchase a watt of electricity since it was built eight years ago, and he saved money from the start. It would have cost $8,500 to connect the office to a rural cooperative's transmission grid, while the dual solar/wind system cost $8,000.