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In Minnesota, the renewable answer blows with the breeze

If most of Minnesota’s utilities are going to meet their state-inspired goals of 25 percent renewable power provided by 2025, the answer, my friend, is not solar.

If most of Minnesota’s utilities are going to meet their state-inspired goals of 25 percent renewable power provided by 2025, the answer, my friend, is not solar.

The consensus of experts in the field who spoke at the E3 Conference in St. Paul last week was that wind energy would shoulder the burden. We don’t have enough sunlight, nor is the technology far along enough, to consider the sun as a primary solution.

Power demand is about as variable as a summer breeze. And the wind doesn’t blow all day, every day, but it has existing technology and the beginnings of a transmission infrastructure to get the job done.

“The challenge is going to be moving our system around to meet this spiky system of wind,” said Betsy Engleking of Xcel Energy.

The company just passed the 1,000-megawatt mark in its renewable portfolio this year; Engleking estimated that 3,300 megawatts of wind power will be needed to meet the state standard by 2020. “We got 10 years to add 3,000 megawatts to the system,” she said.

Grand Meadow in the works

Xcel eventually wants to own about one-third of its wind-generating capacity and buy the rest. To that end, a 100-megawatt facility at Grand Meadow is in the works, with plans for another 350 megawatts worth of projects due in 2010-11.

She ticked off a long list of challenges, including transmission integration, equipment shortages, rising costs, regulatory uncertainty and differences among jurisdictions.

Betsy Schmiesing, an attorney with Faegre & Benson, said Minnesota utilities now generate about 6.8 percent of their annual power through renewables, mostly wind.

State Sen. Ellen Anderson, wrote the 2007 renewable energy bill that kick-started the initiative. “It’s a challenge for all our utilities,” she said, “and they are embracing it with gusto and good faith.” One of her hopes was that the renewable market would bring green jobs, but the production of wind turbines and other parts, for example, has slowed at our borders.

Iowa a leading wind-producing state
Iowa, for example, is now one of the leading wind producing states in the nation and boasts turbine manufacturers in Newton, Cedar Rapids, West Branch and Fort Madison. There is an associate of applied science degree in wind turbine energy and technology at Iowa Lakes Community College in Emmetsburg.

In Minnesota, one unintended consequence of the state mandate is that the Minnesota Department of Transportation issued 2,400 permits for truckers hauling oversized wind-power equipment from June through September of this year; many are shipped to Duluth from Europe. You’ve probably seen them on the highways, looking like pieces of the Eiffel Tower coming at you.

More than half of the states in the country have required utilities to get a percentage of electricity from renewable sources, and “nearly every state is moving on this standard,” said Michael Noble of Fresh Energy, a Minnesota nonprofit. “Wind power is the only technology that is available on a large scale that is ready to go quickly.”