Energy on the breeze

Small wind turbine
Small wind turbines like this one south of Brainerd, can make enough energy to power a house and feed electricity to the power grid.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

There's a vintage windmill lying on its side on Bob Nibbe's farm south of Brainerd. Someday, Nibbe plans to fix up the relic and turn it into an eye-catching landmark for his family's berry farm. But for now his attention is focused on the modern wind turbine whirring away at the end of an open field.

While the bitter wind is strong enough at ground level to whip up face-numbing snow flurries, it's even stronger 120 feet up where the turbine's trio of 12-foot long fiberglass blades are a spinning blur. Nibbe says it's more than a raw day, it's a power making day.

Bob Nibbe
Bob Nibbe has a small wind turbine on his farm south of Brainerd. The electricity it makes is purchased by a local power company.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"It takes about 10 miles-an-hour of wind to get that turbine started. It really starts generating power when its about a 15 mph gust," Nibbe says.

Nibbe's turbine has been up and spinning for about a year. You can see and hear how much electricity is being made in an equipment-filled shack at the base of the turbine. That's where the electricity makes its way to a buzzing metal box. It sizzles with power whenever a wind gust comes up.

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"Right now you can see the meter is spinning and we're making about two kilowatts," Nibbe says.

Two kilowatts isn't a lot, barely enough to power one home. But it all makes its way onto the grid, where a local power company buys it from Nibbe. He feels good about being able to harness the infinite, albeit inconsistent power of wind to make electricity. That's good because the turbine isn't exactly a money maker yet. The power company pays him about $100 a month for his electricity. But he'll pay $350 a month for the next decade or so to pay off his $40,000 investment. That's what the turbine cost after the USDA pitched in a $14,000 grant.

Power meter
A power meter on Bob Nibbe's farm shows that his wind turbine is making power on a gusty day. A local company pays him about $100 a month for the power he makes.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Wind power supporters say those USDA grants are a big help, but not the type of wide support that's going to push small wind energy to its potential. Because of a looming energy crisis, and concerns over global warming, they say now is the time for a push to install more small wind turbines across the rural landscape.

According to Ron Stimmel, with the Washington DC based American Wind Energy Association, small wind turbines, not just the megawatt behemoths seen out on the prairie, could make up a big part of the country's energy making future with the right support.

"Small wind is poised for pretty significant growth. Technological advances have been made and engineers are hard at work, but it's really the high up-front costs that are the hurdle. People want them they just can't afford them at the moment," Stimmel says.

The answer according to Stimmel might be as simple as offering wind power the same federal tax credit that's given for solar power systems.

"They currently receive a 30 percent investment tax credit for the people that buy them, but small wind does not," Stimmel says.

In addition, solar energy systems are also eligible for a one-time rebate in Minnesota. That can end up shaving thousands of dollars off of their cost. Wind power doesn't receive the same break at the state level.

In Congress an early version of the new Energy Bill contained a 30 percent tax break for small wind turbines, but it was taken out of the proposal during negotiations.

Support for wind energy has also been part of the new Farm Bill. Some lawmakers have proposed adding hundreds of millions of dollars for wind power to the new version of the legislation, according to Andy Olsen with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. That would subsidize wind projects of all sizes including small turbines on rural property.

"This particular program is open to farmers and ranchers and rural small businesses. So if the land owner does have a rural small business eligible under those criteria those would qualify, and many do," Olsen says.

It's uncertain how wind power will fair in the Farm Bill. Debate on the bill was halted last month after disagreement over amendments to the five-year, billion dollar plus piece of legislation. With only three weeks left in the 2007 session no one is sure if a new Farm Bill can be approved anytime soon, let alone help support the fledgling small wind power movement.