Giant wind turbines have been popping up like springtime dandelions throughout western Minnesota ever since 1991. That is when the state first enacted financial incentives to capture the same breezes that churned smaller windmills on farms in the early 20th century.
Later, the state successfully pushed mandates that Xcel Energy produce more power from emission-free renewable wind, and the 2007 Legislature enacted a landmark law requiring that a quarter of all the state’s electricity come from renewables like wind and solar by 2025.
Already, more than a thousand ghostlike pinwheels puncture the prairie skies, most crowded onto a glacial rise called Buffalo Ridge, where wind reliably blows. The mandates mean thousands more turbines will be built.
It also means something that likely will be less popular than eco-friendly wind power:
Transmission lines, and lots of them.
Shades of the ’70s
A mere mention of lines conjures images of the hostile 1970s power-line protests in west-central Minnesota that featured shootings, vandalized towers, felony arrests, and even home visits by Gov. Rudy Perpich. Books were written (one co-authored by a young activist named Paul Wellstone) and “The Pope County Blues” memorialized in song a rebellion that turned conservative farmers into defiant radicals.
Today, some 800 miles of giant towers supporting high-voltage lines — eight times the distance covered by lines that provoked the ’70s protests — are in various stages of planning for completion over the next 10 years. They’re needed, planners say, to carry power produced by up to 7,000 more wind turbines that will cost $4 million each to erect.
Still more transmission lines are on the planning horizon, raising concerns about where they all would go. A report is due Monday by the Minnesota Office of Energy Security that could set the stage for how to manage power loads in an era of dispersed power generation from multiple smaller sources like all those turbines. And on Tuesday, a series of 13 public hearings will begin in Moorhead, Minn.
A preview came in April,when a Minnesota Senate committee heard from a consortium of 11 utilities called CapX2020, which is advocating power lines in four corridors dissecting the state to simultaneously upgrade the transmission grid and to move all that wind energy.
The committee also heard from a critic who won’t go away: George Crocker of Lake Elmo, Minn., whose involvement in power lines began with the ’70s protests and which has evolved into promoting what he calls “smart lines.”
An attempt to minimize building of new lines
The focus of the new report will be on how power from small, dispersed sources like wind turbines can be captured at strategic points along the existing grid so that building new lines may be minimized. Traditionally, grid managers have dealt with power from large single sources, like power plants.
Crocker and other wind advocates, along with the utilities, agree more lines are needed to move the emission-free power to where the consumers live: in the Twin Cities and even in Chicago and, soon, on to eastern cities. So much wind power is currently being produced in Minnesota that it has overloaded the regional grid, prompting occasional “curtailments.”
Lack of transmission lines is one bottleneck, said Steve Scott of Canby, Minn., operations officer for Outland Renewable Energy LLC. Another is a mounting backlog of blades for the massive turbines, and still another is a complicated queuing issue that regulates access of new producers onto the regional grid in ways to manage electrical loads.
There’s also an industry worry about the fate of the federal production tax credit that subsidizes fully a third of the break-even costs of wind turbines. The tax credit — which subsidizes large turbines for 10 years — is set to expire in December, with wrangling in Congress over how to pay for an extension. Without the tax credit, industry analysts say financing would dry up and the building boom of new wind turbines would virtually stop everywhere in the country.
Issues of capacity and routing
But a major problem facing the nascent industry in Minnesota is transmission capacity — and the dicey problem of where lines will be routed.
The privately owned Outland, based in Chaska, is drawing up plans to run a 150-mile line from Buffalo Ridge to the Twin Cities’ southwestern suburbs that it hopes will be operational in about eight years.
“If you love wind power,” Outland’s Scott says hopefully, “you’ve got to at least like transmission lines.”
Many of the state’s regulatory requirements for power lines were shaped by the 1970s protests; the requirements put in place extensive environmental and technical reviews, along with a “certificate of need” from the Public Utilities Commission. Responding to another lesson learned from the protests, power-line proponents are busy with public meetings in the areas of potential routes to give plenty of advance notice of their plans.
Edward Garvey, director of the newly created Office of Energy Security, would do more. He suggests that the “certificate of need” requirement be relaxed, arguing that the state’s legal mandate for more wind power has already established need.
Demand, benefits could soar
Through it all, the demand for wind energy continues to grow, and Minnesota — along with Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota — is poised to reap financial benefits that could easily soar into the tens of billions of dollars.
The rapid and capital-intensive development exposes a continuing concern over whether large utilities and corporations or smaller farmer as individuals and groups stand to gain the rewards. In one attempt to level things off a bit, the 2005 Legislature passed a “community-based energy development” program (C-BED) designed to help individual farmers and communities compete for projects.
“This is the greatest economic benefit tool we have for Minnesota’s farmers and small towns,” said Dan Juhl of Pipestone, a pioneer in wind development whose company helps farmers compete financially in a business that elsewhere is consolidating into large corporate ownership.
The sheer size of the potential for wind energy is impressive.
According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), Minnesota’s installed wind capacity is at 1,299 megawatts (mw). By comparison, Xcel Energy‘s giant twin plants at Monticello produce about 1,100 mw (1 mw is roughly the electricity energy needed to run 800 homes, a number that will increase with energy conservation).
But Minnesota’s wind power capacity will have to grow to more than 7,000 mw to meet the state’s 25 percent renewables mandate, something that the AWEA says is well within the state’s wind power potential of 75,000 mw.
Minnesota, Iowa in the lead
Minnesota and Iowa currently lead the nation with percentage of power produced by wind, at 7.5 percent of the states’ totals. Wind turbine capacity grew by 46 percent across the United States last year, but less than 2 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from wind (Denmark is the world leader at 20 percent).
While the bottlenecks of transmission lines, blade construction and access to the power grid present real challenges, the industry is expanding the technology and building bigger wind turbines.
First-generation turbines produced a half megawatt of power or less, and today some units produce more than 2 megawatts on towers that easily dwarf the Foshay Tower in Minneapolis or the State Capitol in St. Paul. The day will arrive when 500-foot towers are rated at 5 mw of capacity.
Windmill blades are now up to 140 feet long (each unit has three) and are trucked on rigs so long that they have trouble making turns on freeway cloverleaf interchanges. The “sweep” of the blades can cover four acres and they spin up to 250 miles per hour, sucking up migratory birds at times, and when it snows they can toss accumulated ice chunks very long distances.
Developers often build “wind farms” consisting of multiple turbines, like the 67-unit group being constructed by Xcel Energy on 40 acres near Austin, Minn. When finished later this year, the farm will be rated at 100 mw of electrical production.
High potential next door
Minnesota’s rated wind potential of 75,000 mw, while nearly 60 times above present production, isn’t even close to what AWEA rates North Dakota’s nation-leading potential. North Dakota currently has 345 mw of installed capacity, but its potential is a whopping 138,400 mw — or 126 times the size of Xcel’s Monticello plants!
Outland V.P. Ingrid Bjorklund uses the numbers to make a point:
“If the U.S. would mandate, say, a 20 percent renewable standard, the Midwest is where much of the wind power would be produced,” she said.
That’s because the large load-centers in the eastern United States have relatively low wind-power potential.
And where would the transmission lines from western Minnesota and the Flickertail State go? Straight east, right through the Gopher State.
Ron Way, a former reporter for several Midwest newspapers, covers the environment and energy issues. He can be reached at rway [at] minnpost [dot] com.