State losing lead in wind power

WILLMAR -- Minnesota is fast losing its lead as a producer of renewable wind power in a race that has important stakes for farmers and rural communities.

WILLMAR -- Minnesota is fast losing its lead as a producer of renewable wind power in a race that has important stakes for farmers and rural communities.

Wind and other renewable energy sources offer economic opportunities for farmers and rural areas, according to Ken Bradley of the nonprofit Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy, or ME3.

California, Texas, Iowa and Colorado have already moved ahead of Minnesota, Bradley told an audience of about two dozen people Friday at an ME3-sponsored forum on renewable energy in Willmar. He predicted that unless the Legislature can take action this session, Minnesota will soon see its one-time lead as the nation's top wind-power state slip to seventh place.

"Other states are moving very quickly,'' said Bradley. Since 2003, six states have added more wind power than Minnesota, he said.

Minnesota certainly had its aspirations to keep the lead. In 2001, the state set its sights on adding 1 percent of renewable or "green'' energy capacity per year beginning in 2005.


But Minnesota's lead began to slip as the result of action by both the Legislature and Public Utilities Commission in 2003 and 2005. They determined that hydropower sources could be counted toward the renewable energy goal, even though the hydro sources were from facilities that had already been producing power for decades, according to Bradley.

Now, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is urging that Minnesota set its sights on obtaining 20 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources. But Bradley said the governor's proposal would allow 84 percent of that 20 percent target to be provided by hydropower imported from outside the state, including Canada and Wisconsin.

Minnesota already imports more electricity from outside its boundaries than any other state, according to Bradley. Minnesota accounts for one-third of the imported electricity in the nation.

Local legislators and area wind-power entrepreneurs all expressed their desire to see Minnesota become energy self-sufficient by developing wind and other renewable sources.

There is reason for both optimism and concern.

Carl Nelson has been working for three years with others in hopes of developing a 2-megawatt wind-power project near his hometown of Glenwood in Pope County. The power would be sold to Xcel Energy.

Bradley said Xcel Energy has found that wind power can be a very economical part of its energy mix, and is now pursuing it aggressively.

Nelson can confirm it. "I couldn't get Xcel Energy to return my calls for 2½ years and now I can't work fast enough for them,'' he said.


Yet many rural electric cooperatives and municipal electric utilities are not ready to endorse wind energy. State Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, and State Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said they met only one day earlier with the boards from area rural electric cooperatives. They learned that the local boards are investing in coal-fired generation rather than wind due to the costs they have to pay for wind power. "They worry about the cost to consumers,'' said Juhnke.

Part of the problem is the obligation for rural electric cooperatives and other utilities to purchase wind power from many smaller-scale generators at retail electric rates. It makes wind power twice as expensive as power from coal plants.

Juhnke and Johnson said they are looking for ways to provide economic incentives for rural power cooperatives to purchase wind power. Those attending the forum offered ideas ranging from an incentives program like that which jump-started the state's ethanol industry, to a pilot project to develop wind generation on a local system.

As for putting Minnesota back in the lead on wind energy, Johnson said he was hopeful that the Senate would move forward. He said a current bill favoring a 20 percent renewable energy goal for 2015 will be returned to committee for some revisions, but should ultimately reach the floor.

The fate of similar legislation in the Republican-controlled House is less certain. Bradley pointed to a recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It reported that a Republican caucus fund-raising letter to utilities cited the defeat of a 20 percent renewable energy goal last session as one of the party's accomplishments.

Proponents of wind power are "outnumbered'' in the halls of the state Capitol, according to Bradley. There are 117 registered lobbyists for utilities and others opposed to any wind-power mandates.

The opposition comes at a time when new technology now makes the price of producing wind energy "very competitive'' with fossil fuel sources, such as coal, he said.

Although Minnesota has no coal of its own, 67 percent of the electricity made in Minnesota is produced from coal, according to figures from 2002. Wind was the source for only 1 percent of the electricity made in Minnesota in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Energy data provided by Bradley.

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