Region continues to develop wind energy
WORTHINGTON -- Southwest Minnesota is "where it's at" in wind energy development. But that's not only where it's at, according to a new study suggesting exciting wind-related opportunities abound throughout the state.
That's a good thing, said Nobles County Commissioner David Benson, who has been involved in wind energy issues since the industry burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s.
"This means that we're not going to be alone in this," said Benson, a member of Community Wind South, an organization attempting to improve wind-related opportunities for local investors. "The whole state will see the future in wind development. From now on, every community in the state will recognize that they live with a valuable resource."
Southwest Minnesota, located along the Buffalo Ridge, is the windiest region of the state and contains most of the state's wind farms. Benson said new projects are being developed in Nobles, Murray and Jackson counties. Other areas of the state are moving quickly, too, he said, including Lake City, Lakeville and Northfield.
State commerce officials released a report last week that showed wind projects are feasible across a broad L-shaped swath of Minnesota. The study was called a "quantum leap in science" by John Dunlop, senior outreach representative for the American Wind Energy Association.
Far from taking the wind out of the sails of southwest Minnesota, Benson said the study should open up new challenges for everyone.
"This study will wake more communities up, because I think most people had been thinking it's only southwest Minnesota," Benson said. "Everybody on our planet will begin to realize that renewable energy is the future. The question is, who will be the players in this new market? Or who will be allowed to play?"
Benson and other wind energy proponents are hoping to affect change to allow broader ownership of wind energy projects. The production tax credit (PTC) now only benefits a narrow range of investors, Benson said, and needs to be modified to allow more people greater control.
"The resource flows over the land. We've been unable, or inhibited, from developing or marketing that resource," he explained, saying too much of wind projects are controlled by large companies with few ties to local communities.
"There's a tremendous potential for broad community benefits, if we can figure out how to do it," Benson said.
Wind energy is already a popular topic among Minnesota politicians. Last year, the Legislature passed a law to aid communities in getting wind projects started, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty set a goal of 800 megawatts of new community-based wind energy by 2010.
According to Community Wind South, southwest Minnesota has the potential to provide 44,000 megawatts of electricity -- enough for 22 million homes. But lack of transmission capacity and access to capital continue to frustrate efforts toward full potential.
Benson said he and other wind energy enthusiasts hope the new farm bill -- to be debated within the next year -- may be a vehicle to strengthen community control.
Distribution is another concern.
"The electrical distribution and generation system is this incredibly complex integrated system," he said. "There's a lot of systemic inertia. That system isn't going to change easily."
But even with all the challenges, wind projects are springing up all over.
"It's moved kind of slowly and progressively," said Benson. "Now, there's going to be an explosion of development. Because it's very profitable for developers who are able to participate."