Backers of renewables hope farmers and local investors will own and profit from the state's turn toward new energy sources. They want dozens, maybe hundreds, of small scale power projects contributing toward's Minnesota's 25 by 25 goal. That energy future is already taking shape on a farm in Redwood County. Alan Wenisch loves to make his own power.
"Well, I like to get into it, yeah," says Wenisch. "I've got a solar panel and we're burning corn for green energy."
An even bigger energy project is at hand. Working with a developer, Wenisch and his neighbors plan to build a wind farm on their lands.
"It's renewable, it's clean, that's the two main things," says Wenisch. "I think it's a lot better than a nuclear plant. Coal is, the pollution, there's problems there too you know."
It's the sort of project renewable energy supporters see sprouting up in every corner of the state.
But while this electricity production will use the latest technology, it'll still have an old fashioned edge. The new electricity will move through the same pole and wire technology used for over a hundred years. Much of it will be the very large transmission towers that can upset landowners.
There are few options. Early dreams of wireless transmission of electricity have proven impractical, too much energy is lost. Super-conducting wires are being tested, but aren't ready for commercial use.
Utility companies in Minnesota and adjoining states are planning to build more than 1500 miles of new powerlines to handle increased electricity demand and production in the next 13 years.
Gordon Pietsch is with Great River Energy based in Elk River.
“We think they've judged that wrong.”George Crocker
"I think we've leveraged the transmission that was developed about 30 years ago. The transmission capacity has been exhausted and now it's time for us to look at investing in new transmission that will carry us over the next 30 years," Pietsch says.
A group of power companies, known as the CapX 2020 utilities, have already started filing the necessary paperwork with state regulators for the first group of new power lines. Pietsch says the lines are needed because electricity use continues to grow.
"It's a combination of population growth in the state, new jobs being created in the state, new business opportunities. Ethanol is becoming a very large load. The amount of technology that's in our houses continues to expand and all of that requires electricity to serve that particular load," says Pietsch.
The need for the new power lines is being questioned. George Crocker of the North American Water Office has been active for decades on the issue. He says state regulators should slow the push for new lines.
"There is no doubt that we will need new power lines in the future," says Crocker. "The problem that we have with the phase one CapX is that they're pre-judged the set of high voltage power lines that they think they need. And we think they've judged that wrong."
Crocker says the answer to the power line issue may be found in a study expected to be funded by this year's legislature. Researchers will look at the state's transmission grid. They'll search for under used portions of Minnesota's power line system. Areas where small wind projects could easily hookup to the grid, with minimal power line construction. Projects like the one on the Wenisch farm in Redwood County.
George Crocker says this approach would hold new power line construction and costs to a minimum. He's already done some rough calculations.
"We could do the same 5-6000 megawatts that CapX 2020 wants to do for three to six billion; we could do that for $500-600 million," says Crocker. "Huge, huge savings."
Crocker says that would save consumers a lot of money on their electric bills. Gordon Pietsch of Great River will help with the study. He says the new information could have an impact on power line building in Minnesota. However he says it's too soon to say whether it will significantly change current plans for new transmission lines in the state.