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Counties look to wind power for energy, income

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Turbine models
Winona County will purchase two turbines from Dutch manufacturer EWT International. The Winona County Wind Project is located 3 miles northwest of Altura, MN. The towers will have a height of 246 feet and a rotor diameter of 177 feet. The project is expected to be up and running by June 2010.
Photo courtesy of EWT International

The nation's increasing focus on renewable energy has sparked interest in wind energy projects throughout Minnesota and counties are taking notice.

One of the first to turn to wind as a form of alternative energy is Winona County in southeastern Minnesota, where officials plan to begin work soon on two wind turbines that could produce considerable electric power -- and income for the county.

When built, the Winona turbines could produce about 1.5 five megawatts of energy, enough to power about 600 homes. Officials also project that the turbines would generate about $1 million in revenue for the county and $3 million for a private investor.

The project, expected to be up and running by June, would cost about $3.5 million. The county has already spent $200,000 and expects to be reimbursed for most of that with state grants. In the end the county will pay about $36,000.

The rest of the project's cost would be financed by an unnamed private investor, who local officials hope will complete an agreement with the county by mid-February.

"It's going to be really hard to believe," said Linda Grover, director of Winona County's Economic Development Authority. "We've waited so long and nearly given up so many times that when those blades come rolling in on the trucks, it's going to be quite a cause for celebration."

Not everyone in Winona County thinks the project is a good idea. Among its detractors is Ross Greden, whose father, Larry, tried his own experiment with wind power, investing $80,000 on a turbine.

Ross Greden
Ross Greden, 37, stands outside his home just off County Road 114 in the Mount Vernon Township of the Winona County. It's less than a mile and a half from where county officials plan to erect their turbines.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

 Greden, who has long farmed alongside his dad, lives on a ridge just off County Road 114 in the Mount Vernon Township of the Winona County. His house is less than a mile and a half from where county officials plan to erect their turbines.

On a recent day, Greden crossed a snow-covered cornfield by snowmobile to reach to a wind turbine at the far end of his property, where he's spent all of his 37 years. His annual meter reading for 2009 was 42,871 kilowatt hours of power.

Based on his own experience trying to generate wind power, Greden doesn't think it makes sense to spend taxpayer dollars on a wind project here. According to state and local officials Southeastern Minnesota doesn't have nearly as much wind as Southwestern Minnesota, where the state's wind production industry first took hold. 

"Why built it here where it's not as windy?" Greden asked, noting that his father struggled to break even.

 "That was his red flag," Greden said about his father's criticism of the county's plan. "Wait a minute guys, you're going to spend my [money]. I already risked my money, my own money on my own land, and it didn't really pan out."

Checking the wind turbine meter
Ross Greden, 37, takes an annual meter reading of the turbine his father owns. Greden doesn't think it makes sense to spend taxpayer dollars on a wind project here. He and his dad learned this the hard way -- after investing $80,000 on a turbine that has struggled to break even.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

County officials, however, are confident their project will pan out.

Grover, whose group manages the effort, understands concerns about the county's investment. But she said the county is trying to generate revenue off tax dollars instead of only spending them on roads or other services.

 "We're trying to be creative and we're trying to bring in something we can use to augment tax payer dollars," she said. "The county's turbines will work because they'll be taller and designed specifically for the location."

The county hired Minneapolis-based WindLogics to study the site's weather patterns for the last 40 years. Grover said the study shows there's enough wind to power both turbines.

"I have no doubt that our project is going to work the way that it's predicted," Grover said. "There's more than adequate wind at that site."

Linda Grover
Linda Grover directs the Winona County Economic Development Authority, the group that's managing the wind project.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

But Winona County's road to wind-generated power hasn't been easy.

At first, county officials wanted to build the turbines on their own. But they realized the county did not have the legal authority to construct or own a turbine. They also learned it would be nearly impossible to raise millions of dollars without the help of private investors. 

State legislators passed a special bill to allow the county to create a limited liability company. That gave local officials the authority to partner with private investors to raise money.

They've also signed an agreement with Xcel Energy, which will buy the power the county's turbines produce. That energy would go towards powering homes closest to the turbines, Grover said.

Still, even some officials are skeptical.

County Commissioner Marcia Ward, a long-standing critic of the plan, said there's a reason private wind energy companies haven't come to Winona: there isn't enough wind in its part of the state to merit the investment.

Instead of investing in wind energy, she said, the county should first focus on improving core services, like public safety and roads.

When the county dilutes the pot of money it collect from property taxes for new projects, she said, it diverts crucial resources best spent elsewhere.

"They're not bad things," Ward said, "but is it taking away some of the resources and energy and effort toward the core functions?"

The county's four other commissioners are optimistic the project will work. They say it's meant to serve as an example of how governments can benefit from working with private investors to finance worthy projects.