In the Spotlight

News & Features
Wind Farming on Buffalo Ridge
October 24, 1997
By Mark Steil

Click for audio Part One (RealAudio 2.0 14.4 )

Groundbreaking ceremonies took place October 25 for the second phase of NSP's wind farm in southwest Minnesota. When completed next year it will generate enough electricity to supply about 40,000 homes. Several other smaller wind projects are also in the works in the same part of the state. Wind supporters say it's a major step forward for their industry, which they say is competitive with coal and other methods of generating electricity.

PHASE TWO WILL ADD ANOTHER impressive string of wind turbines along a ten-mile stretch of Buffalo Ridge northwest of the town of Lake Benton. About 130 wind machines will be constructed by Zond Development Corporation of California. They'll join a group of turbines southeast of town which have produced electricity for several years. Several other smaller wind farms are also in the planning stage. Greg Jaunich is president of Minneapolis-based Northern Alternative Energy:

Jaunich: In Minnesota we have two projects that are going up on the Buffalo Ridge. We'll be selling power for Northern States Power Company. They're in the northwest portion of the area NSP is developing on the Buffalo Ridge. And those two projects represent about 23 megawatts of power.
That's enough for about 11,000 homes. Jaunich says the cost of wind- generated electricity has dropped significantly in recent years as wind turbines have become more efficient. Each machine has three long blades with which to catch the wind. They look like larger versions of the propellers on a World War II fighter plane. Jaunich says blade designs are continually getting lighter, more aerodynamic, and stronger. The improved technology lowers costs to a point where Jaunich says wind can compete with coal generated electricity:
Jaunich: Wind power over the long term is cheaper because it has no fluctuation in fuel price. The wind is a free energy source and hence once your capital costs are paid for; wind power is the cheapest form of energy in the region.
An analyst at NSP says that's only part of the equation. Mark McGree says it's true the cost of wind-generated electricity has fallen. He agrees that in some cases wind power is cheaper than coal or natural-gas produced power. But, he says, when all factors are considered, including the fact wind doesn't blow all the time, wind is still an expensive source of electricity:
McGree: A new coal plant provides you energy when you need it. You can call upon it when your load is high in the winter and summer and you have a very high probability that it will be there for you. Whereas wind is an intermittent resource, and you have no such certainty that when demand is high in the winter and summer that the wind will be blowing and thus providing energy.
Variations in wind strength means a wind farm produces about a third of the power it could produce if wind speeds were constant year round. McGree says a coal-fired plant operates at about 85% capacity. But even if wind power costs more, supporters believe it can still win a big share of the market. In California next year, consumers will be able to choose the company from which they buy electricity. Randall Swisher of the American Wind Energy Association says competition between electric companies may catch on in other states:
Swisher: So that rather than you as a customer being served by a monopoly utility, other companies will be able to come into your community and compete for your business. And one of the ways they will compete is on the basis of who can provide you with the cleanest power. And I think companies that are offering wind generated electricity are going to be in a very strong position to win new customers.
In Minnesota a legislative task force is studying the power industry. One of the questions they're considering is whether homeowners should be allowed to choose their electricity supplier. There is evidence that if competition is allowed, some homeowners will choose to pay more for non-polluting wind power. Cooperative Power Association of Eden Prairie is already offering its customers the chance to buy wind power - at a slightly higher cost. Enough people responded that the company plans to put up two wind turbines near Chandler in southwest Minnesota to supply the power. Greg Jaunich of Northern Alternative Energy predicts a major growth period ahead for wind energy:
Jaunich: We think that when the industry is deregulated, wind energy will play a more prominent role as part of the major mix. It won't be the sole source of energy but it may be, up to in some areas, up to 10 percent of the energy.
The growth of the Minnesota wind industry results mostly from NSP's problems with storing nuclear waste. Under an agreement allowing the utility to store waste at its Prairie Island plant, NSP agreed to develop a major wind power capability. Jaunich and others say while that's helped Minnesota get a head start on wind energy, the day will come when power company's build wind farms because they'll generate a profit.