U.S. wind energy production saw big gains last year in most of the leading states, except for Minnesota as the state slipped again in the national rankings for wind power capacity.
The state of Washington surpassed Minnesota, which fell to fifth place. But Minnesota officials say they're not worried about the future of wind energy in the state.
At the start of 2009, things looked anything but promising for the U.S. wind industry. The economic downturn meant it was difficult for builders to find loans to finance new wind farms.
Kathy Belyeu with the American Wind Energy Association, which issued the rankings, said the situation began improving when Congress passed the economic stimulus package. It had tax and other incentives for the wind industry. She said by the end of the year, things were booming.
"2009 turned out to be a better year in terms of wind energy installations than any other year on record," Belyeu said.
In all, Belyeu's organization is reporting the nation's wind production increased by almost 40 percent in 2009. That additional 10,000 megawatts is enough to power two and half million homes.
Both Texas and Iowa increased their wind production by almost a third. But in Minnesota, the increase was far more modest, just a three percent growth in wind energy production during 2009, and that contributed to the state's decline in the American Wind Energy Association's rankings.
“I think the story in Minnesota is a little nuanced.”Kathy Belyeu, American Wind Energy Association
"I think the story in Minnesota is a little nuanced," Belyeu said. "Minnesota has a great wind resource and it's probably even better than some of its surrounding states."
Belyeu said one of the factors limiting Minnesota's wind energy growth was a lack of power lines to carry the electricity to market.
"Sometimes the transmission capacity can be congested and it's difficult to get those projects the capacity that they need to get built," she said.
There are plans to build new power lines in the states, the most important being the CapX2020 project. Eleven utility companies have joined forces to build almost 700 miles of new lines, but the start of construction is still two years off.
Despite the lack of new lines and the resulting drop in the rankings, state officials say the state is on track to meet its renewable energy goals. DFL State Sen. Ellen Anderson said Minnesota's slow growth compared to other states is not a big worry.
"Our utilities are actually ahead of schedule in meeting the goals that we've set for them, so that by 2020 we'll have 25 percent renewable energy in our system in Minnesota," Anderson said. "So we're well on our way towards getting there."
As they work to meet that goal, state utilities must get about seven percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of this year. Anderson said Minnesota's approach to wind development is different from other places.
Most states have large utility companies put up the projects. Minnesota has that, but it also has a significant number of smaller, community-owned wind farms. Anderson said building small means slower growth, but the approach keeps more wind-generated profits at home.
"If you have a wind development that's actually owned by local Minnesotans, then the dollars that are spent to develop that project, to produce that power all re-circulate in that community and result in jobs in that community," she said.
That move toward local development could face increasing headwinds though in the future. Several projects over the last year have faced organized groups arguing against expansion of wind power in their neighborhoods and have opposed projects for a variety of reasons.
Some say wind farms are unsightly, others worry about noise problems. One of the opponents, Katie Troe of Clarks Grove, said for the most part state regulators seem unsympathetic to the concerns of wind opponents.
"They're pretty much ignoring us so far," Troe said. "I hope that that will not continue. But for the most part they're ignoring us."
Troe said until she and others get some answers about their wind energy concerns they'll continue to press for recognition. Along with the power line shortage, that home-grown opposition could be an increasingly difficult hurdle to clear for wind expansion.