Despite occasional lulls, wind energy sails ahead in Minnesota

Most wind farms in the state have cropped up in southern Minnesota fields.
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
Most wind farms in the state have cropped up in southern Minnesota fields.

Stately rows of wind turbines towering over Minnesota corn and soybean fields might be looking a bit more attractive — and even patriotic — these days, as we watch tens of thousands of barrels of crude spewing each day into the Gulf of Mexico, and see pictures of those oil-spattered birds.

Around the state, thousands of the gangly turbines have sprouted on wind farms, particularly in the “wind tunnel” that extends from far southwestern Minnesota toward the east, a bit north of the Iowa border.

Even more wind farms — and their attending controversies — are proposed for other rural parts of the state, and some are even showing up in urban areas as the state moves closer to its requirement of having 25 percent of its energy generated by wind power by 2025.

(I have some experience with wind farms: My wife, Julie Kramer, and I own a small Iowa farm tract that has a wind turbine, and Julie’s new novel features a subplot involving wind farms.)

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been a big advocate of wind power, saying recently in Rochester: “(Wind power) is going to continue to grow because it is increasingly accepted economically and otherwise.”

Some recent opposition
Still, there’ve been several instances recently of organized opposition from people who don’t want the giant wind behemoths close to their farms or homes. Generally, they want tighter regulations in the midst of uncertainty about the effects of noise and vibrations on human health.

Not everyone living in the shadows of the turbines, though, sees a problem.

“The highway traffic and our house fan are both louder than the turbines,” said Debi Schwemmer of rural Dodge Center. One turbine stands about 500 east of her house on Hwy. 56. Others loom in the near distance.

“We’ve lived here four years and it doesn’t bother us,” she said. “We had some horses, and it didn’t bother them, either,” she said. “I know some people think it wrecks the landscape, but that doesn’t bother us.”

Earlier this year there was some angst around the state when reports showed Minnesota had fallen in the national wind rankings from fourth to fifth place. Not to worry, say the experts: We’re doing just fine; other states are just catching up.

‘A very sustainable path’
“Some of the stimulus money helped other states, and while they moved up, we stayed still,” said state Sen. Ellen Anderson, chair of the Senate’s environment and energy committee.

“Our renewable energy standard is so aggressive that I don’t worry about the ups and downs. Over time, we’ll get there on a very sustainable path.”

Anderson said that energy transmission is the next key — getting the electricity from the turbines to the grid. Enough wind projects are on the drawing board in the state to achieve the 25 percent goal, but the transmission bottlenecks are holding up some approvals, she said.

Wind turbines in rural Dodge Center
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
Wind turbines in rural Dodge Center

Last week the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld approval of the 1.7 billion CapX 2020 project to build three high-voltage transmission lines that would stabilize the grid and deliver more wind energy from the Dakotas and western Minnesota.

Those against the power lines, though, vowed to continue their fight. The groups had argued that the power lines aren’t needed because energy demand had been declining. There are also property-rights issues, and concerns about wildlife.

Some push-back about proximity
The big wind turbines, too, are sometimes opposed by those worried about proximity to homes and towns.

“There’s some push-back, that’s natural,” Anderson said. “But we’ve still got a lot of open space that not next to homes where we can site more turbines.”

And she once heard from a man who thought the sound and vibrations from a nearby wind farm was affecting his hearing.

State officials are so enamored with the idea of generating electricity with wind power that they’re now considering whether to start using turbines on state-owned lands.

“We want to grapple with the issues of where wind turbines would be appropriate,” Anderson said. “Some pristine areas would not be appropriate, but in other cases the turbines might not impair the views and might be okay.”

Also being examined is the possibility of putting turbines on school trust fund lands, as another way to generate income — along with the sale of timber and minerals — for state school districts.

Windy NIMBY?
Most wind farms in the state have cropped up in southern Minnesota fields, but with many of those prime locations now already plucked by wind developers, some are looking further north.

A proposed wind project in central Minnesota’s Stearns County, though, brought out much opposition — as well as considerable support — leading to a request for a moratorium on new wind farms in the county until county commissioners could gather more information.

To prepare for the decision, some county officials visited a wind farm near Marshall, to see firsthand what the set-backs and sounds and aesthetics would be.

Commissioner Vince Schaefer told the St. Cloud Times that the Marshall turbines were quieter than he expected. But there were only nine on the wind farm visited by the officials, and the Stearns County projects call for more — 40-60 in Paynesville, which is furthest along in planning.

Schaefer said he favored a moratorium, to consider whether greater setbacks are needed. He also wonders about health impacts.

“It’s awfully confusing, the information we’ve gotten so far. It’s from one extreme to the other,” he told the paper.

A 2009 Health Department report
Commissioners also looked at a 2009 state Health Department report on how low-frequency noise and shadow flicker from wind turbines might affect human health.

Wind turbines in rural Dodge Center
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
A wind turbine in rural Dodge Center

Some living near turbines have complained of annoyance, headaches and sleeplessness, although the low-frequency noise from a wind turbine generally can’t be heard beyond a half mile, the report said. And the report notes that shadow flicker can be eliminated by turbine placement and adequate setbacks.

State rules require utility-scale wind turbines to be at least 500 feet from homes, but to meet noise standards most must be 750-1,200 feet from homes, the paper said.

Finally, the county board voted down the moratorium proposal last week, so Twin Cities-based Geronimo Wind Energy will continue planning on projects in the county near Paynesville, Luxemburg Township, Sauk Centre and Albany.

Citizen concerns
Near Rochester, a group has organized to slow down some of the wind farm developments. Olmsted Wind Truth says its members have “watched private lives interrupted with industrial skylines and threatening health issues.”

They think state officials grant permits too freely, without enough research. And they want greater setbacks from homes and towns “to protect our existing quality of life and for future generations.”

There’s also a Goodhue Wind Truth group and a Dodge Wind Truth group.

The Dodge County group wants turbines to be at least 1¼ miles from homes, rather than the current 500-foot requirement. Public Utilities Commission staff members have recommended raising that to 1,000 feet. There’s also a sound setback requirement — a 50 decibel limit, which officials say generally is met at about 700-800 feet from a turbine.

Says the group’s web site:

We must act NOW before our horizon, serenity, and land is taken from us.

We are fighting to preserve our land and rural disposition so that it may continue to be admirable for generations to come. Our government officials have a responsibility to protect Southern Minnesota by restricting the distance wind turbines can be built from homes.

The Goodhue group raises the issue that the tall turbines could hamper emergency helicopter operations, but Mayo Clinic officials said it hasn’t been a problem.

Shooting the breeze, in town
Wind turbines are popping up in cities, too.

North St. Paul is one of a dozen cities installing turbines to generate power through the Minnesota Municipal Power Association. North St. Paul’s turbine is 80-feet tall, with 35-foot blades. It had problems, though, in the winter, when the lubricating oil turned to gel in the cold temperatures.

Plans for similar municipal turbines have been installed in Buffalo, Le Sueur and Faribault, while plans are in the works in Anoka, Arlington, Brownton, Chaska, East Grand Forks, Olivia, Shakopee and Winthrop.

Mahtomedi, too, recently moved closer to having a turbine in town. The Mahtomedi Area Green Initiative is spearheading the plan to put a 125-foot turbine on land owned by St. Andrew’s Lutheran church. They’ve raised $27,000 of the $75,000 needed.

Wind turbine in North St. Paul
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
Wind turbine in North St. Paul

And in Austin, the city council has been struggling with an ordinance that would allow wind energy systems in the city, except in residential areas. They would be allowed in school zones, though. Final approval is still pending.

The answer, my friend …
Wind energy’s future in the state remains bright, Sen. Anderson says, especially when it’s compared to other energy producers.

“When you try to site coal plants or nuclear plants, you face a lot worse issues,” she said.

“Of course, we don’t want to cause devastating issues to neighbors; we’ve got to figure out the right balance. In Europe, there’s a dense population and dense concentration of wind turbines. We don’t want to go down that road.

“No, we don’t want one on every street corner, but if the fights against them intensify, all the wind companies will go to the Dakotas, where there’s lots of wind, but not many people.”

Joe Kimball writes about politics, Greater Minnesota and other subjects.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/21/2010 - 09:07 am.

    I can’t help but wonder how many of these “wind truth” organizations, etc., are quietly (and invisibly, even to themselves) funded by oil, coal, and natural gas interests who make a great deal of money providing the energy for our current power systems?

    The changes we so badly need in the ways we procure the energy needed to power our society are moving us in the direction of having many power generators, owned by individuals and smaller companies, located in many different places, thus pulling the rug out from under those who have been making huge profits off of supplying those energy needs for these past many decades, even as they produced massive quantities of greenhouse gasses and other pollution.

    We can expect that those whose profits stand to be reduced will now seek to locate and underwrite all the “chicken little’s” out there who fear change and fear technology, and some of whom would like us to return to an eighteenth-century lifestyle, if the truth be told, and use them to try to grind the needed changes into the ground in the name of whatever red herrings the profit mongers can supply (as in Exxon/Mobile’s well-known funding of anti-climate change organizations, their shill scientists and their media personalities).

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/21/2010 - 11:03 am.

    First of all don’t live within a mile of one of those big turbines. The noise will drive you up the walls that the low frequency sounds penetrate.
    And the problem is not lack of transmission lines. It’s the huge cost of those lines that only work about 25% of the time. 25% is the capacity factor of all US wind in 2008 and 2009. That means that 3/4s of the time they aren’t contributing to the grid. Wind turns itself on and off – the bane of grid managers maintaining the grid’s delicate balance.
    In 2009 US wind provide about 72 billion kwhs. Sounds good, but that’s just 1.75% of our total 4 trillion kwh. Texas has 3 times the wind power of any state. In 2009 wind had a capacity factor of less than 10% in Texas and provided 706KW of Texas total summer capacity of 72,000 KW, or 1%.
    There’s a role for wind but it’s overhyped and heavily taxpayer subsidized.

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 06/21/2010 - 11:59 am.

    Taxpayer subsidization of wind and solar is not a reason for opposing either.

    What’s BAD for America and the world is use of our taxpayer dollars to subsidize new nuclear plants (and guarantee them indemnity for accidents) and so-called “clean” coal.

    The alternative to alternative forms of energy is yet more Katrinas as the world continues to warm and yet more Gulf of Mexicos as the hunt for oil gets more and more desperate.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 06/21/2010 - 12:20 pm.

    Oil is heavily taxpayer subsidized, in the form of carbon emissions and military dollars needed to stabilize the regions from which it is acquired – but we like to pretend that it’s not, that the “real” cost of a gallon of gas is two bucks, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

    The path forward for energy will take some kind of “subsidization”, or at least pricing that reflects the real costs of the source. That in itself is not a reason to avoid a source of renewable energy. And while it’s true that wind isn’t operating all the time, it’s still a piece. Saying that it’s not the silver bullet when no such thing exists is not an argument against it.

  5. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/21/2010 - 12:52 pm.

    There is a role for wind; it is not the complete scam that corn based ethanol is. Nuclear is getting federal loan guarantees, but they get paid back as clean efficient nuclear is very profitable for utilities.
    Wind and solar require direct cash subsidies. the new Cape Wind project is the ultimate taxpayer funded boondoggle. It will cost over $2 billion to provide 100 MW of summer power.
    Prairie Island provides over 1000MW of constant power at an operating cost of about 2 cents/kwh including fuel. The initial contract for Cape Wind Power is at over 20 cents/kwh. That one is a scam.
    T Boone Dickens is getting ready to unload his excess turbines on Goodhue County.

  6. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/21/2010 - 12:55 pm.

    Bernice, you are right about so-called clean coal. It isn’t.
    AS to nuclear give us some evidence that you can tell the difference between a proton and a beach ball.

  7. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/21/2010 - 01:00 pm.

    Jeff, the oil and gas industry has the same investment tax credits and depreciation allowances offered the rest of industry. They also pay billions for oil leases and substantial royalties on production and large income taxes. The oil and gas industry is the largest tax PAYING industry in the US. Those payments fund the inefficient non competitive renewables.

  8. Submitted by david granneman on 06/21/2010 - 01:20 pm.

    i am glad to see there is finaly leaders that have the courage to speak the truth.
    there is no global warming so there is no need to reduce carbon emmissions.
    the cheapest, most reliable energy source on the planet is coal.
    60 percent of our electricity comes from coal. we have coal resources that
    would last hundreds of years. the energy in coal has given this country the
    energy to achieve the highest standard of living in history.
    there is no viable alternative energy source in the near or even far future that can replace coal. wind and solar are very expensive and even worse they are both very unrelieable.
    england has invested heavily in wind energy. they have recently decided to greatly cut back on wind as their electricity costs have doubled and they are facing energy crisis as they are not getting the energy promised by the wind farms. the statistics gathered over the past ten years show that only about 24 percent of the time had wind that would generate power. that means you only get power about 1 out of 4 days. the other 3 days required expensive natural gas backup it would require thousands of large wind mills covering hundred of square miles of land connected by a spider web of high voltage power lines to replace one large coal or nuclear power plant. carbon dioxide is not a polutant, it is the gas your exhale when you breath. it is the gas that allows plants to grow and thrive.

  9. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 06/21/2010 - 01:44 pm.

    Yes, but NOBODY is paying for climate change due to the use of oil. If you put a cap on the amount consumed that reflected the maximum that would safe, the price would instantly skyrocket. It is only cheap because the externalities are ignored. And let’s not forget the trillions of dollars and lives squandered mucking around in the middle east to ensure the supply.

  10. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 06/21/2010 - 01:53 pm.

    China is building new infrastructure. It has a tremendous need for energy and some of the most polluted air in the world. More importantly, its business and political leaders live in that same polluted air.

    As the 19th century was built on coal,and the 20th on oil, the 21st will be built on energy conservation and renewable power. It seems clear that China will lead that movement.

  11. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/21/2010 - 01:58 pm.

    Jeff, we are mucking around in the Middle East because of George Bush hubris, not because we need to for oil. We don’t get that much from the ME, and the Chinese get all they want without a single soldier there.IMO we do need to raise the price of carbon, expecially with a big tax on gasoline.

  12. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/21/2010 - 02:08 pm.

    David, I am looking at the new EIA 2010 energy outlook, and we continue to get just 50% of our electric energy from coal. Projections out to 2035 show a slight decline to 46% in 2035 – 2,222 billion kwh out of a total of 4,828.
    There are alternatives to coal. In the near term, more natural gas could be used by increased use of existing facilities and build of new. Gas costs more than coal which is what holds us back. Longer term nuclear is the one source with the power, low cost, and high capacity factor to replace coal. The unfortunate cancellation of 51 new nuclear plants after Three Mile Island meant that more coal got built(See my editorial of June 17 under Community Voices).
    Your analysis of wind in the UK is right on. By coincidence a calculation in the US shows the same capacity factor of 24% for US wind in both 2008 and 2009. Nuclear has been at 90% for the past 3 years, and the 10% down time is scheduled.

  13. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/21/2010 - 02:18 pm.

    In 2008, the US generated 25.1% of all the world’s wind energy. China was at 6.2%. They are up some in 2009 and 10, but we still produce 3 times as much wind energy as the Chinese. Like us, they get a trivial percent of their energy from wind and solar. That percent remains at about 2% in the EIA’s latest projection for 2035. The 21st century appears still to be coal, oil, NG and nuclear.

  14. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 06/21/2010 - 03:20 pm.

    Perhaps I should have alluded to the growth of high speed rail in China as well. I recognize that was a rather broad and reaching statement(#10). Thanks for the heads up Rolf.

  15. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 06/21/2010 - 03:23 pm.

    Nice to see someone talking about some of the cons of the wind power. I would really love for the MinnPost to do an in depth analysis and touch on the following:

    What is the construction cost per KW and what is the operating costs per KWH (including depreciation and debt service) of Coal, Wind, Solar, and Nuke power.

    What has the true capacity utilization been of the wind farms built in MN? 10%? 15%?. It would be nice to know how much of the generation has been during peak periods where the wind power was absolutely necessary to meet demands, versus times where our dependable base load capacity easily met demands (and the excess would have to be dumped on the market at costs below that of the MUST BUY wind power).

    What percentage of the time during peak loads are the towers NOT operating?

    How have the actual maintenance costs and product lifetimes compare to what was initially planned for?

    How many acres are required in MN to meet the state mandates based on the current average turbine size? How much wind prone area is available in MN 500 ft away from homes? 800 ft? 1000 ft? 1.25 miles?

    This info would go a long way to help most people do a valid comparison on different power technologies.

  16. Submitted by Dave Thompson on 06/21/2010 - 04:40 pm.

    There are two drawbacks to wind power:
    1. The current transmission lines don’t go to where the wind is. That’s being fixed.
    2. You can’t base your energy grid on wind power alone. The wind doesn’t always blow. The fix is, to boil water for your steam generators using your choice of fuel.

    The main advantage to wind power is, once you install the turbine and the transmission lines, the electricity is free. Free is good!

  17. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/21/2010 - 05:23 pm.

    Good point about China’s high speed rail program, Richard. They push head with apparently a license from Alstom, while we dawdle.

  18. Submitted by david granneman on 06/21/2010 - 06:04 pm.

    in addition to the fact that wind power is very expensive it has another major disadvantage. wind power is very unreliable and constantly varies in output- one minute it can be producing max and the next be down to nothing – as determined by the wind. the major disadvantage to this is the fact that our whole electrical infrastructure has been designed to work with very stable and reliable power sources – such as coal and nuclear power plants. highly variable power sources has in cases caused the complete failure of a power network. remember the east coast power failure was cause by a small power plant failing. the only way we can use highly variable sources such as wind and solar would required a complete rebuilding of our power infrastructure – the so called SMART GRID. the cost of this would be enormous. ANYBODY TELLING YOU THAT WIND AND SOLAR POWER WILL BE USED IN OUR FUTURE DOES NOT KNOW THE TRUE FACTS.

  19. Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 06/21/2010 - 06:19 pm.

    Wind opponents said “We are fighting to preserve our land and rural disposition so that it may continue to be admirable for generations to come.”

    The pollution from coal-fired plants is somewhat less obvious, but I really want the fish in the Arrowhead region to no be full of mercury. A good friend of mine actually got mild mercury poisoning a few years back while backpacking across the Superior national forest.

    I used to drive to St. Cloud on business some mornings, and even with the scrubber technology in place, you could see an orange smudge that spread probably 40-50 miles to the east on light wind, cold days.

    I think a 1,000 foot set-back (unless waived by a homeowner/operator of a turbine) is probably reasonable in rural areas.

    But beyond that, every energy source has costs. Unless we’re wanting to go dark, environmental costs will occur, so lets find equitable ways to deal with them.

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