By Dick Hagen
Farmers and communities make electricity with wind
Certain things, such as death and taxes, are inevitable. Now you can add another: electricity costs will keep going up. Supply from nuclear and coal-fired power plant expansions are questionable, however, due to environmental issues.
Wind power to the rescue? It’s likely, especially across America’s Northern Plains, where prairie winds blow all year. The U.S. wind energy industry installed more than 10,000 megawatts (MW) of wind power–generating capa-city in 2009, enough to generate as much electricity as three large nuclear power plants.
Small wind turbines, generating up to 100 kilowatts (kW), are now creating their own surge, says Bill Schwankl of Talk Inc., a Sauk Centre, Minn., wind power firm. "Electricity is a commodity. America has an insatiable energy appetite, so electricity has only a one-way trend and that’s up," he says.
The tremendous time cost of rebuilding and expanding the U.S. electrical grid is a primary factor behind the growth of small wind. So is the economics—locally owned small wind turbines show an eight- to 12-year payback based on current electricity costs.
Electricity generated by smaller turbines is most often used locally, on the farm where the turbine is located or another facility. This bypasses the need to be connected into the grid. Thanks to Minnesota’s net metering law, any excess power generated by 39.9-kW turbines is metered back to the local utility as a credit.
Nicollet County, Minn., pork producers Warren and Rachael Krohn installed two 50-kW Polaris turbines (locked in at 39.9 kW) this past spring.
"Because of Minnesota’s net metering law, we see wind energy becoming a growing force," Warren says. "Also, federal grant money of 30% on purchase price plus the potential of
25% USDA Rural Energy for America Program [REAP] convinced us that now was the time to go wind power."
With sons Brent and Bryce as partners, the Krohns added four more turbines for a total of six.
"Our thinking was get into wind energy now because these federal and state startup grants might not be there down the road," Krohn says.
Even small wind can be expensive. The Krohns’ Polaris units come with a $268,000 initial cost. But the arithmetic is intriguing. "If a turbine was able to get the treasury grant and the maximum USDA grant and was also able to use all the depreciation assuming a 25% tax bracket, the turbine investment would net down to $63,650," says Shawn Dooling, president of Renewable Energy SD, the Excelsior, Minn., firm that markets the Polaris system.
The Krohns’ confinement hog barns are high energy consumers, especially in the summer. "We use about $1,000 of electricity per month, but that drops considerably in late fall and winter. We should be doing some net metering back to our local utility from December to May," Krohn says.
"Wind energy has been noted as the second most cost-efficient, next to nuclear, and we are seeing great momentum," Dooling says.
Local energy. Community wind farms, named for their local owners, are also gaining momentum. Two examples, Adams Wind Generations LLC and Danielson Wind Farms LLC, both near Cosmos, Minn., just went online.
"Most big wind projects are owned by corporate money outside our state, often even outside our country. This project was developed and built using Minnesota equipment and labor, and all 12 towers are erected on land locally owned," says Doug Adams, a local farmer and former Minnesota Corn Growers Association board member.
Each 19.8-MW wind farm includes 12 Alstom ECO 86 turbines manufactured in Barcelona, Spain.
"Our family embraced this opportunity to be a small part of our country’s energy solution by harvesting the wind, while creating a new business that can bring economic benefits to the area," Adams says.