Farming the Wind in Minnesota

06-01-2002 // Melanie Radzicki McManus

THE RUGGED TERRAIN AND UNFORGIVING GUSTS that characterize a southwestern portion of Minnesota known as Buffalo Ridge have always tormented local farmers. Its rocky hills make cultivation difficult, and the stiff winds create a trail of swirling dust and flapping clotheslines. But today, the wind is blowing new life into this rural area, providing a second income for local farmers by powering more than 400 turbines that supply clean energy to 100,000 homes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Such innovation is particularly important now as the country looks for ways to reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

Spread across about 35 miles of farmland in Lincoln and Pipestone counties, the turbines produce more energy than any other wind farm in the nation, collectively churning out 325 megawatts of electricity for a mere 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour versus the national average of 8 cents for electricity generated using fossil fuels. Energy developers pay farmers $2,000 to $3,000 a year in royalties for every turbine on their land. Each one only takes up about an eighth of an acre, while a full acre of corn yields only $150 in a good year.

"Every farmer here would love to get one on his or her land, including me," says Jim Nichols, a Lincoln County commissioner and one of the area's biggest wind power supporters. Even farmers with land adjacent to turbines can get into the game by selling wind rights to energy developers who want to prevent other companies from "stealing" their wind by building their turbines too close.

Besides putting cold, hard cash straight into farmers' pockets, Nichols says the wind farm project, which began two years ago, added 50 plum full-time turbine maintenance jobs in Lincoln County alone. The county now also receives $715,000 in annual property taxes from wind developers--money desperately needed for education and services in one of the poorest counties in the state. Another pleasant, unexpected benefit of the wind farm is tourism. Fifty-one busloads of tourists traveled to the region in 2000, just to drive through the countryside and watch the turbines at work. And they're quite a sight.

Standing at more than 200 feet tall, the majestic turbines have 75- to 85-foot rotor blades that spin quietly and effortlessly. From a distance the towers appear artistically clustered on the rolling terrain, somehow looking as bucolic as the grazing cattle and hay bales dotting farmers' fields.

"At night when the sun sets, they're just gorgeous," raves Becky Wilcox, facility administrator for the brand-new Midwest Center for Wind Energy, which opened last July in nearby Hendricks, Minnesota. The center is owned by Minneapolis-based Navitas Energy, which owns 75 local turbines and is North America's third largest wind power generator. "People even hold their weddings out there so you can see the turbines in the background," she says.

Locals weren't always so enthusiastic about wind energy, which was first brought to their attention in the early 1990s. At the time, the state of Minnesota had just required that the Northern States Power Company (now called Xcel Energy) should build or purchase 425 megawatts of wind energy by 2002 if it wanted to store nuclear waste at Prairie Island Nuclear Plant in Redwing, Minnesota.

Nichols, a former state legislator, saw an opportunity to help his cash-starved county. He gathered together a group of neighbors to lobby for a wind farm. They got it, but many residents were leery. "None of us had ever even seen a wind turbine before," says Nichols. "And there were no major projects in the world to study. People were afraid that the turbines would be noisy, expensive to operate and that they'd kill birds."

Their fears had some merit. California is home to a number of wind farms, built following the 1970s energy crisis, that became major disappointments. The farms, often erected on remote mountain peaks or passes in the Golden State, contain many small, noisy turbines that produce a tiny amount of expensive electricity, often killing birds in the process.

Dramatic advances in wind turbine technology have changed the picture completely, dropping the costs from about 38 cents per kilowatt hour to mere pennies. They also are encouraging the sprouting of new or expanded wind farms in South Dakota, Tennessee and along the Washington-Oregon border.

Today's more sophisticated wind catchers generate 120 times as much electricity as their predecessors, and they do so at virtually the same cost as energy produced from new coal-fired power plants. And wind, of course, is a clean energy source. Use of coal causes health and environmental problems such as asthma, smog, global warming and acid rain, which add another 2 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour to the total cost of coal, note Mark Jacobson and Gilbert Masters, energy experts at Stanford University, who reported their findings in Science magazine. For example, a federal black-lung benefits program has cost taxpayers about $35 billion since 1973, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics.

Wind farms--which can be located outside bird migration routes--can also be constructed in just a few months, compared to nearly five years for gas-fired plants. And new technology enables rotors to turn more slowly, allowing birds to see and avoid them more easily.

Transporting the electricty generated in wind farms to urban areas is perhaps the biggest drawback to the growth of wind power. Authorities in Buffalo Ridge concede that they could be supplying a lot more energy to Minneapolis residents if transmission problems could be resolved.

Nevertheless, Buffalo Ridge farmers continue to embrace wind energy as their crop of the future. So far it's proving to be pretty much everything they had hoped for. "One guy I know probably got $1.5 million for his wind rights," says Conrad Schardin, a Lake Benton farmer who also sold wind rights on two parcels of land. "A few others used their proceeds as a nice retirement fund. And I know at least a couple farmers in their 60s who would have probably lost their farms if this hadn't come along."

Schardin says area land values have risen, not declined, as some initially feared. So it's not surprising that most residents in the area hope a wind developer representative will come knocking on their door, asking to locate a turbine--or two or three--on their property.

Schardin, Nichols and others are hopeful to someday see their area's wind power fully harnessed, with 1,000 turbines churning out 825 megawatts of electricity, enough to light up 275,000 homes. Plans are on the drawing board to do so by 2012. Energy developers say it will happen much sooner than that.

In the meantime, Schardin, for one, will enjoy the turbines already out there. "They're almost mesmerizing as they gently turn in the wind," he says somewhat reverently. "I always stop in the field and just watch them."

Wisconsin journalist Melanie Radzicki McManus described how to useĀ rain gardens in your yard to cut down the flow of runoff pollution from your property in the February/March issue.

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