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North Shore wind turbine offers challenge and opportunity

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Jim Boyd
Jim Boyd is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer who now lives in Grand Marais.
Photo courtesy Jim Boyd

On the fourth Tuesday of the month, the Cook County Local Energy Project comes to order in a community center meeting room. The room can hold anywhere from four to a dozen people, although in recent months attendance has tended more toward the four than the dozen.

This is a truly grassroots organization, initially organized over a campfire by George Wilkes,  who runs the Angry Trout Cafe; Buck Benson, owner of Buck's Hardware Hank, and Lonnie Dupre, polar explorer and carpenter. The group wants at least some of the energy used here generated here, in an environmentally sustainable fashion that creates living-wage jobs for county residents.

Although the focus on renewable energy is paramount, it's also important  to create jobs for local young people so they can remain here and afford to own homes and raise families. Right now it's difficult. The influx of well-off baby boomers like me has elevated the price of housing well beyond what young folks can afford.

Typically, young people paste together a ragged existence with as many as three or four part-time jobs to a family. The only really good jobs are either in government or owning your own business, although the latter is no guarantee of prosperity. Just ask the artist/entrepreneurs who drip from the North Woods trees. 

I coordinate the energy project's wind working group. It is a daunting task. Part of our effort is to encourage individuals and business owners who might want to install small wind turbines. But our greater emphasis is on community wind projects, which could involve turbines ranging from less than one megawatt to the huge honkers that generate as much as 2.5 megawatts. We're focusing on the lower edge of that range.

A community wind project on the North Shore seemed dubious at first; the state wind map shows a virtual wind desert in Minnesota's northeast. But a professor from the University of Minnesota  Duluth (UMD) doubted that map, as do many of us who think we live with quite a lot of wind. So Prof. Mike Mageau set out some wind monitors along the coast. His preliminary results showed promise: On specific peaks up and down the shore, persistent winds in the 14-16 mph range seemed likely.

We wanted to test Mageau's hypothesis. But we quickly learned that moving from "wouldn't it be grand" to "let's try it" is difficult, even with the help of groups and agencies like Windustry in Minneapolis, the state Department of Commerce Energy Security Office, the Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Teams Project, the Rural Energy Development Initiative and the Northeast Minnesota Sustainable Developments Partnership. All of them are on board.

We've discovered that if we focus small -- say, less than 5 megawatts of installed wind capacity --  we can fly under the radar of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and the Midwest Independent Transmission Systems Operator, eliminating time-consuming permits and considerable expense (Did I mention that we haven't two pennies to rub together?). We can deal directly with Cook County and with the Arrowhead Electrical Cooperative, which gets its power from Great River Energy (GRE). Arrowhead's contract with GRE allows the local production of about 1.5 megawatts of power, which is what 5 megawatts of installed wind capacity should actually produce. You learn this stuff.

Mageau's preliminary wind map shows a bunch of potential turbine sites in Cook County. One is what we call Old Ski Hill, right above Grand Marais, the one with several communications towers on it.

But there is a problem: Old Ski Hill is probably second only to Hawk Ridge in Duluth as a place where migrating raptors congregate along one of the most important flyways in the country. Migrating raptors and wind turbines do not mix. So we called in the raptor experts from UMD. They advised us straightaway to avoid the first ridgelines up from Lake Superior, which puts Old Ski Hill and a whole lot of other potential wind sites out of bounds. (Plus, you can imagine the howls of aesthetic protest from all sorts of quarters if we even suggest erecting a huge wind turbine directly above Grand Marais.)

We thus look farther inland for sites that: 1) show high wind potential; 2) are near existing power lines, to reduce the cost of connection; 3) are near existing roads, and 4) are privately owned, since working with private landowners is easier than swinging a lease on federal or state land.

Did I also mention that more than three-quarters of Cook County is owned by the federal and state governments? And part of that federal land is in the beloved Boundary Waters Canoe Area, from any point of which you should not be able to see a wind turbine. (One local, a dyed-in-the-wool wilderness lover, advised us that if we ignored that last restriction, lots of folks in the Cities would sue our socks off.)

It will be, I estimate, two years before we can even decide whether a community wind turbine will ever be feasible in Cook County. Every day I must remind myself that this is a feasibility exercise. A  judgment that we cannot reasonably proceed is just as valid, and valuable, as the more positive outcome we'd all like.

Send us energy and good will -- and if you are a foundation, money would be good, too.

Jim Boyd is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer who lives in Grand Marais.