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Energy Prices Spur More Talk of Wind Power
By Bob Reha
January 29, 2001
Part of MPR's online project, This Cold House
Click for audio RealAudio

America is facing an energy crisis. In Minnesota, energy experts say the state will soon need five new power plants. The crisis is making some folks look west to the Dakotas, which could produce more wind power than they need. The next problem is getting that energy to where it could be used.

Lake Benton, Minnesota calls itself "The Wind Capital of the American Midwest." Here wind towers stand 257 feet tall. Each turbine's fiberglass blades create a rotor diameter of 158 feet, operating in wind speeds of 9 to 65 miles per hour. Learn more about wind power in Minnesota at the Sustainable Minnesota Web site.
THE ROLLING PRAIRIE AROUND FINLEY in north central North Dakota seems to stretch out to an endless horizon, broken only by the occasional line of trees surrounding a lonely farmstead as a wind break. Here, where people joke that you only notice the wind when it doesn't blow, economic prosperity might be found in the nearly continuous gales.

"North Dakota, on the national level, has the capability of providing about 36 percent of all the wind resources in the United States," says Keith Munson, chairman of the Griggs-Steele Wind Development Group. The economic development project is a partnership of Griggs and Steele counties.

Generations of farmers have used windmills to pump wells, and some have progressed to using wind generators to produce electricity for their farms. Now, new technology is making it much cheaper to harness wind power. In 1980, it cost 40 cents to produce one kilowatt of power - now that cost is less than a nickel. What's being planned here near Finley is a wind farm - 60 wind generators capable of producing 80 megawatts of power. That's enough electricity to run 24-thousand homes. By comparison, a proposed coal-fired plant in western North Dakota could power 135-thousand homes. But wind power advocates stress theirs is a much greener option. Munson says the big question is where the power will go.

"It certainly isn't in North Dakota. It's going to have to be exported someplace. The problem is, how do you get it there?" asks Munson.

The Griggs-Steele project has a potential buyer for its electricity, Xcel Energy in Minnesota. This project has an advantage, in that it is near existing power lines managed by the Western Area Power Administration, or WAPA. If the deal with Xcel falls through, there are other potential customers. California, for instance, needs all the electricity it can find. Munson says the problem is you can't get there from here, at least when it comes to electricity.

"The bulk of these electrical lines are privately owned. There is a WAPA system that's federally owned, but that was primarily built to get electricity from federal projects such as hydroelectric dams. If you're going to be crossing from one region to another, how do you do that better than from the federal perspective?" Munson says.

That question is on the minds of most people at the recent Wind Energy and Rural Development Conference. A standing-room only crowd has gathered to learn how to turn the state's potential for wind energy development into jobs and tax revenue.

"I think we have to overcome a couple of things," says Charles Grunewald, a senior engineer for Xcel Energy. "One of them is the public's perception that transmission lines are bad. Typically when there's a new transmission topic, the media will show a huge steel line and make it look like a a forest of steel. But some of the things needed are modest upgrades to existing lines," says Grunewald.

But getting even modest upgrades is difficult. There's been no expansion of transmission lines in North Dakota in the past ten years. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, a proposed power line running from north of Duluth to Wausau has prompted concern over environmental and human health effects.

Learn more about the reasons for higher energy prices and the prospect for Minnesota's energy future in MPR's online project, This Cold House.
There are other problems with wind power. Power is only available when the wind blows. That doesn't always coincide with when the power is needed, and there is no way to store it. These issues hamper development of rural wind power like the Griggs-Steele project. Ed Weber, manager of transmission planning for the Western Area Power Administration, says he doesn't see that problem being addressed.

"It is unlikely the power transmission grid will be changed to expand capacity. Transmission is very expensive, and it becomes cost prohibitive," says Weber.

But as the capacity for power transmission shrinks, people's appetite for electricity grows. Keith Munson of the Griggs-Steele Wind Development group says if compromises can't be reached to transmit electricity from new sources such as wind power, eventually some people may go without.

Bob Reha covers northwestern Minnesota for Minnesota Public Radio's Mainstreet unit. Reach him via e-mail at