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Wind companies like Obama energy plan

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Wind and grid
If the Obama energy plan becomes reality the U.S. will need many new power lines. This map of potential new lines is in a Department of Energy report that proposes 20 percent wind energy by the year 2030. Potential 765 KV lines are in green, existing 765 KV lines are in red.
MPR Graphic/Bill Catlin

The election of Barack Obama was great news for Minneapolis-based National Wind.  

"We were very pleased," said Leon Steinberg, who heads the wind farm developer.  "We think that the investments that he is planning will help fuel our growth."

Leon Steinberg
Leon Steinberg is CEO of National Wind in Minneapolis. The company has about 50 wind farms in various stages of development in five states.
Photo courtesy of National Wind

It's easy to understand why Steinberg and other wind developers are interested in the Obama energy plan.   Currently, about 1.5 percent of the nation's electricity is wind generated.    In just four years, Obama wants renewables producing 10 percent of the nation's electricity and 25 percent by 2025.  Steinberg said to meet those goals the wind industry must double or even triple its growth.  

"One industry publication suggested that we would need to add between 15,000 and 20,000 megawatts a year," Steinberg said.

That translates to as many 10,000 new wind turbines a year in the U.S.   Steinberg said his company is the largest wind developer in Minnesota.  Right now, the company is planning some 50 wind farms in five states capable of producing enough electricity for about one million homes.  Add to that the possibility of even more projects under the Obama plan and it looks like a long period of growth for developers like National Wind.   

There's plenty that could change that outlook though.  Congress could reject or alter the Obama plan.  The current economic downturn might limit federal spending for the projects.  Leon Steinberg said there's another major issue.  

Wind machine
A wind turbine in southwest Minnesota. This turbine is about 200 feet tall.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

"The biggest impediment to reaching the national renewable portfolio standard is the transmission infrastructure,"  Steinberg said.

In other words, power lines.  As wind energy grows, more lines are needed to carry the electricity from remote areas to customers.  A federal energy department study shows that Minnesota might need several new lines to carry wind power.  Steinberg said they likely would be 765 kilovolt lines, the largest ever built in the state.  

"Wind in Minnesota, in North Dakota and South Dakota will not necessarily be used in Minnesota but it will go through Minnesota and it will go through the other states to other areas where the power's needed,"  Steinberg said.

"The high corn prices have caused cattle feeders to suffer $1.5 billion in losses...that's just a record amount of losses."

In all, Obama wants to spend $15 billion a year on clean energy initiatives like wind.  He said the program would create millions of new jobs.  He's proposing to pay for many of his clean energy ideas with a mandatory carbon emissions program, where industries would pay for every ton of carbon emitted.   

Some of the $15 billion would go toward developing the biofuels industry.  That's caused some concern among livestock producers, who've already been hurt by the rapid growth of corn-based ethanol.  Heather Vaughan, with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said corn prices jumped earlier this year in part because of ethanol demand.  

"The high corn prices have caused cattle feeders to suffer $1.5 billion in losses and that's just between January and June of 2008,"  Vaughan said.  "And that's just a record amount of losses."

She said the association will continue to push to end ethanol subsidies.  She said the group supports renewable energy, but wants to make sure the new fuels don't hurt cattle producers.  It's the sort of argument President-elect Barack Obama may hear from many factions in the energy debate.  The coal industry already is worried that Obama's energy program could lead to cutback's in coal use in the U.S.