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Changing energy landscape in western Minnesota: Wind turbines go up as work to dismantle coal plant starts

Tom Cherveny / Tribune Crews working for Xcel Energy removed an exterior coal-loading system from the shuttered Minnesota Valley plant on the east edge of Granite Falls. The former coal-fired plant has not produced electricity since 2004, and is scheduled to be dismantled in 2023. 1 / 3
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Fagen Inc., of Granite Falls, erected the 18-turbine, Palmer's Creek Wind Farm north of Granite Falls. The 44.6-megawatt capacity wind farm began commercial production on Dec. 30.2 / 3
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Fagen Inc., of Granite Falls, erected the 18-turbine, Palmer's Creek Wind Farm north of Granite Falls. The 44.6-megawatt capacity wind farm began commercial production on Dec. 30. 3 / 3

GRANITE FALLS — Two telling examples of Minnesota's changing energy landscape could be seen in the Granite Falls area this autumn.

Crews working for Xcel Energy removed the exterior coal loading system at the shuttered Minnesota Valley electric generation plant on the edge of Granite Falls. The former coal-fired plant has not produced electricity since 2004. It is scheduled to be dismantled in 2023, according to Randy Fordice, senior media representative with Xcel Energy.

At the very same time, crews for Fagen Inc., of Granite Falls, erected 18 wind turbines on a 6,150-acre footprint immediately north of the community near the Minnesota River Valley bluff. The Palmer's Creek Wind Farm was completed and officially became commercial on Dec. 30. The new wind farm — one of the largest in this region — is now operating with a capacity of 44.6 megawatts.

The erection of the wind farm during one of the wettest autumns on record proved very challenging, according to Charlie Hoemberg, project manager. To manage the wet soil conditions, workers laid large mats to accommodate the machinery and heavy equipment. The turbines are on an agricultural landscape with extensive underground drainage, and the turbines are connected by underground lines.

Despite these challenges, the project was completed with only one registered complaint from a resident in the project area. The complaint was quickly resolved, according to filings with the Public Utilities Commission.

The farm consists of 16 2.5-megawatt turbines on 295.2-foot towers and two 2.3-megawatt turbines on 262.4-foot towers. Its location in Chippewa County, 1.5 miles north of Granite Falls, places it in proximity to a large Western Area Power Administration electrical substation that connects to the regional power grid.

The Palmer's Creek Wind Farm project required extensive studies on avian and bat populations in the area, and some of those studies will continue as the turbines spin in the next two to three years. The permits for the wind farm require operations aimed at minimizing avian and bat deaths caused by impacts with the turbine blades.

The wind farm is expected to operate for 25 years. It is projected to pay $134,000 annually in taxes to local government units, according to information previously presented to the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners.

The company is also paying landowners in the project area for land and wind rights. The amounts are not publicly recorded.

The project is creating five full-time positions to maintain and operate it. It also benefited the local economy with the construction jobs and services purchased while the farm was erected.

The closed Minnesota Valley coal-fired plant was formerly one of the largest employers in the Granite Falls area. The property remains a major source of tax revenue.

Last year the property paid a total of $770,238 in property taxes — with the city of Granite Falls receiving $379,759.01; Chippewa County, $156,481.17; Yellow Medicine East School, $91,417.70; the state of Minnesota, $141,379.66; and other entities received $1,200.46.

The value of the property for taxing purposes will be reduced when the plant is dismantled, but it will continue to be a major taxpayer. An electrical substation on the site will remain, and the approximate share of the tax load associated with the substation was $478,000, according to information from Xcel.

Xcel Energy reports that 20 percent of its energy supply company-wide comes from wind power, and that it intends to continue to increase its wind power. It has no current plans for the Minnesota Valley site once the plant is dismantled.

The connection to the Western Area Power Administration substation and grid provides the Palmer's Creek Wind Farm with access to a number of utility customers. A representative of the company declined to identify the current customer or customers for the electricity it is generating.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335
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