Small towns turn to alternative power

Wind machine
The city of Mountain Lake owns this wind turbine on the west side of town. The machine is more than 200 feet tall.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

On a small hill on the west side of the town of Mountain Lake, nature is churning out electricity. Blending into a backdrop of puffy clouds, the white blades of a wind turbine sweep round and round. Standing nearby, Mountain Lake electrical superintendent Daryl Mohlenbrock is smiling.

"These last few days have been very, very good," says Mohlenbrock. "We're getting into what they call the windy months."

Each of the three blades on the machine is more than 100 feet long. A brisk southerly wind turns them just about as fast as they can go. The electricity travels directly from the city-owned wind turbine into power lines serving the more than 2,000 people that live here.

Daryl Mohlenbrock
Daryl Mohlenbrock is the electrical superintendent for the city of Mountain Lake.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

"We're producing at least one-third of the town load which is very, very good," says Mohlenbrock. "That's commercial and industrial, everything included."

It took more than four years of work before the wind turbine started producing power last summer. City administrator Wendy Meyer says there were a lot of details to cover, everything from figuring out the size of the turbine to where to put it. Meyer says the city paid for the project with federal renewable energy bonds.

"We're trying to diversify in order to control our prices, what our customers pay," says Meyer. "When the prices were low everyone was low. And now prices are going up, and so we're trying to find that least costly alternative -- and wind is very competitive."

Meyer says cost was one consideration.

"Wind is very competitive."

Another is state-ordered renewable energy mandates. They've changed through the years, but the current requirement is that by 2010, 7 percent of a city's electricity must come from renewable sources. The target escalates after that, reaching 25 percent by 2025.

City power companies and other utilities face fines if they fail to meet the goals. City administrator Meyer says the Mountain Lake wind turbine moves the town close to meeting the renewable energy target. She says if the machine lasts as long as is hoped, maybe 25 years, the decision will pay off.

"We'll have it paid for in 15 years, so then our maintenance costs are really the only thing we should have left," says Meyer. "So then we should have cheap power."

Other communities are also looking for energy alternatives.

Wendy Meyer
Wendy Meyer is Mountain Lake's city administrator. She says she's received calls from other Minnesota communities about how the city built a wind turbine.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

In Glencoe, a system is under construction to collect methane gas produced by decomposing garbage at the local landfill. The gas will fuel electrical generators. The system is owned by a waste hauling company, but the city of Glencoe will buy the power.

Glencoe utilities manager Collin Engebretson says in the past, the methane was burned off.

"For the last 10 years I've drove by the landfill on my way out of town, and you see this flare burning," says Engebretson. "It's so much energy being wasted."

In the city of New Ulm, officials are looking at a package of energy ideas. Among them wind turbines, but also a plan to burn a coal/biofuel mix in one of the city's generators. The biofuel likely will be pelletized crop waste, like corn stalks and soybean straw.

The city used to produce almost all its own electricity until it became cheaper to buy power on the open market. With demand nearly outstripping supply, that power is becoming very expensive. So much so that building local generation again makes sense.

In Mountain Lake, city electricity manager Daryl Mohlenbrock says growing power uncertainties make his job more complicated.

"Oh, my yes," laughs Mohlenbrock.

Standing next to the town's new wind turbine, Mohlenbrock says the big blades help ease Mountain Lake's energy concerns. He says the price of the wind power so far is less than what the same amount of electricity would cost on the open market.

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