BENSON -- Renewable energy offers the potential of jobs, economic development and a clean environment in the Upper Minnesota River watershed, but proposals to build more coal-fired plants threaten it all.

That's the message of a campaign launched by Clean Up the River Environment at its first "bridge builders gathering'' Thursday evening in Benson.

CURE chose Benson to launch the campaign because it is "forward thinking'' on renewable energy issues, according to Duane Ninneman of Ortonville, CURE development director, and Andrew Falk of Murdock, a CURE representative and private wind-power developer. Benson is home to a farmer-owned ethanol plant and what will soon be the state's first plant to produce electricity from turkey litter and other biomass.

Ninneman and Falk led 47 people in examining the potential for other renewable energy developments in the watershed. Much of the focus Thursday was on wind energy.

CURE wants to encourage community support for renewable energy. It wants communities to follow Benson's example and develop pilot projects to demonstrate the advantages of renewable energy, according to Patrick Moore, CURE director.

Ninneman and Falk told participants that agriculture in the region has much to gain by putting wind turbines on the landscape and creating new markets for biomass.

The region's communities would benefit as well: They cited studies showing that for each megawatt of wind power that is developed, 22 direct and indirect jobs are created.

"Coal does not support the Minnesota economy,'' said Ninneman.

He said the proposed $1.3 billion Big Stone 2 coal-fired plant will produce an estimated 30 long-term jobs in South Dakota. By creating the same 600 megawatts of electrical capacity through wind-power development, the region could realize as many as 1,200 jobs.

To encourage renewable energy, Ninneman and Falk said they want the state to adopt a goal of producing 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025. Gov. Tim Pawlenty endorsed that very same goal in his State of the State address, Ninneman said.

CURE believes that renewable energy is at the point where economic development, community stability and sustainability are converging in its favor, according to Ninneman.

But he warned that proposals to build more fossil-fuel plants threaten to "offset'' markets for renewable energy. When large plants are built, the investing utilities commit their consumers to buying coal-fired power for long periods of time.

There are many fossil-fuel plants on the drawing boards: the Big Stone 2 project is number nine on a list of 127 fossil-fuel power plants now proposed in the country, according to Ninneman. He said he is also aware of proposals for coal-fired plants near Mobridge, S.D., and another in the southeastern corner of the state along the proposed Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Rail line.

Both Ninneman and Falk said they see the proposals to develop coal plants as the main obstacle to renewable energy. They said that some of the more often cited obstacles for renewable energy -- transmission capacity and pricing -- can be overcome.

Ninneman said that a distributive energy approach, in which wind and other renewable energy is fed into local power grids, could actually improve our electrical transmission capacity. Local transmission grids within the west central region of Minnesota already have the capacity to handle up to 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy, he said.

Producing and using that power on a local basis would free up space on the large inter-regional transmission lines that now carry power from large, coal-fired plants to urban areas, he said.

Falk added that it is a "myth'' that wind power is not cost competitive. Wind power actually represents the lowest-cost, new power coming online today, he said.