Turbines spinning renewable success

  ; By Janet Kubat Willette

Windmills have long been a fixture of the rural landscape, and now they are being joined by turbines. New wind turbines dwarf their older cousins, but both operate on the principle of harnessing the wind.

Today's turbines provide clean power with about the same noise pollution as a refrigerator running in an adjacent room. They can also provide income to cash-strapped farmers. But the nation's rural transmission lines weren't set up to bring power from farms.

Instead, they were built to carry power from the cities to the countryside. Connecting with a utility is the most critical, yet trickiest part of a utility-sized wind generation project, said Jeff Cook-Coyle, director of project implementation for Winergie Wind Energy Development Corporation based in Rochester.


Winergie works with farmers who want to own utility-scale wind turbines. The company has worked in Steele, Chippewa and Renville counties and has projects pending in four other counties, Cook-Coyle said.

No requirement

Utility companies aren't required to purchase power from farmers who put up utility-scale wind turbines, but they are required to purchase wind-generated electricity from turbines of less than 40 kilowatt capacity.

These turbines typically generate power for personal use, with excess being sold to utilities. In 1999, Minnesota utilities reported purchasing electricity from 99 such facilities in rural areas, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

They produced sales totaling 642 megawatt hours. Turbines are rated by power capacity, according to the department. The power produced is measured in kilowatt or megawatt hours. A 40 kilowatt turbine, running at full capacity for one hour, produces 40 kilowatt hours of electricity.

Gerald Mikel, general manager of Steele-Waseca Cooperative Electric based in Owatonna, said it has five 40 units on its system, with a couple producing energy for which the cooperative reimburses the producer.

Some people have been using the turbines for 20 years, he said. "They're a fine source of power. That's harvesting the wind, if you will," Mikel said.

Homework necessary


But he cautions producers to do their homework before investing in a turbine. There are 8,760 hours in a year and turbines operate from 12 percent to 34 percent of the time, according to studies he's read.

Turbines typically produce electricity at wind speeds beginning at 8 mph. They automatically shut off when wind speeds reach 65 miles per hour, said John Dunlop, regional manager of the Northern Great Plains regional office of the American Energy Association.

Producers also have to fill out specific applications, make sure there is adequate capacity on the power lines to haul their energy and make sure there are no legal or environmental restrictions to installing turbines in the selected area.

Maintenance of reliability and safety standards is essential, Mikel said, and companies are now working on ways to bring wind energy online without disrupting other information that is being transmitted over the power lines.

Cook-Coyle is optimistic about the future of wind energy and its potential for rural Minnesota.

"It's a low-time investment," he said. "It's a great complement to a lot of farming crops."

Dunlop is equally optimistic, partially because the quality and productivity of turbines continues to increase.

Rory Artig, an engineer with the State Energy Office at the Department of Commerce, agrees turbines can be a source of income.


The Department of Commerce Web site offers considerable information about wind energy, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture will feature information about wind energy at its state fair booth.

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