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From windmills to wind farms
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Joe Koenig has a collection of 13 antique windmills on his property near New Prague, Minnesota. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
The concept of wind power dates back some 5,000 years to ancient Egypt. Since then humans have used wind to power sailboats, grind grain, pump water, and most recently, generate electricity. Over the past few decades Minnesota has emerged as a national leader in that area. The state has successfully converted from windmills to wind farms.

Rochester, Minn. — Tomato plants and sunflowers share space with antique windmills in Joe Koenig's garden. In all, there are 13 painstakingly restored relics, each emblazoned with a name like Clipper or Challenge. These colorful remnants of the past are Joe Koenig's passion.

Koenig leans on his cane and gestures towards a red and green windmill near the edge of his driveway.

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Image One of Joe's windmills

"Montgomery Ward used to sell it for $29. It's so old -- it's a very rare windmill," he says.

Koenig began his collection close to 20 years ago when he retired. He says he grew up surrounded by windmills in this tiny agricultural community outside of New Prague. And Koenig remained loyal to windmills during his farming days, relying on them to pump water for his family and livestock.

Now 82, Koenig remembers when the windmill went from mainstream to virtually obsolete.

"About 1940, when rural electric cooperatives put electric onto our farms. They didn't disappear, really, because they stood there for many years -- and most of them collapsed," he says.

Koenig still tells stories of a time when the wind was valued almost as much as the plow. Windmills were used to grind grain in rural areas like his. Koenig says if the wind kicked up, it wasn't unusual to be roused from bed in the middle of the night and sent to work.

The arrival of electricity in rural areas just about killed the windmill. But now, the need for electricity has caused the windmill's rebirth. People began reconsidering the windmill during the oil crisis of the 1970s.

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Image Round-the-clock energy

About that time Dan Juhl was living in Alaska, working as a musician. It was there he began to explore the possibilities of wind power. Not long after, Juhl moved back to Minnesota and began a career focused on harnessing the wind.

"When I started in the business, the biggest turbine I could buy was no bigger then my arm span. So it's a gradual development of the technology, to where you see where we are today with rotators 25 feet in diameter," says Juhl. "A 25-year metamorphosis from little till today's commercial technology."

It was Juhl who conducted a study that found the state's strongest winds blow in an area known as Buffalo Ridge. It took years, but the findings formed the foundation for a what some people call a wind energy revolution that has made Minnesota a national wind power leader.

Buffalo Ridge in southwestern Minnesota is now home to dozens of tall, gleaming turbines. They rise from cornfields like skyscrapers.

Juhl can see his own wind farm from his office window. The cluster of million dollar, state-of-the-art turbines went online in 1999 after years of negotiations with the utility company Xcel Energy.

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Image From windmill to wind turbine

"The utilities are used to dealing with large, multi-hundred megawatt facilities, whether it be coal or gas -- and wind was completely alien to them. So it took a while for us to get through the power contract phase with them where it was workable for wind," says Juhl.

The state Legislature mandated that the utility invest in renewable energy in exchange for more nuclear waste storage at the Prairie Island nuclear plant. It helped Juhl secure an agreement from the company to construct a transmission line. That allowed electricity generated from Buffalo Ridge to be flow into the grid, and power homes and businesses around the region.

Juhl says he worked hard to get the community involved. He designed a plan where farmers and local business people invested in group wind farms.

"We basically use all local contractors in the construction phase of it. The machines are all owned by members of the community, so the revenue stream stays with people in the community," says Juhl.

He says advances in technology, particularly the advent of the portable computer, have made wind power much more reliable and easy to maintain.

"When we first started building these things, they were very stupid little machines that basically had to be babysat," says Juhl. "And now the machines are sophisticated computers. We can monitor them anywhere in the world, as long as we have a telephone and a laptop."

In the years to come, there will be many many more wind parks spreading across southern Minnesota.
- Garwin McNeilus, wind farm developer

Juhl sells his kilowatts at a flat rate, and Xcel takes as much as he produces. Juhl says the price Xcel pays per kilowatt remains relatively steady. That gives it an advantage over other energy sources like coal and natural gas, where prices tend to fluctuate.

Until recently, wind energy projects were restricted to the western part of Minnesota where the wind tends to be strongest. But Juhl's gospel of community development through wind energy got the attention of a well-known businessman in the southeast.

Garwin McNeilus has put together a 46-turbine project in Dodge Center. The wind park has several different owners and investors drawn from the community. McNeilus predicts this is just the beginning.

"In the years to come, there will be many many more wind parks spreading across southern Minnesota, especially with bigger turbines and larger rotors -- they are so much more efficient," he says.

McNeilus's project took many by surprise. Not only is it in an unexpected location, but the fact it was put together by one of the region's most successful entrepreneurs gives faith that it's more than good for the environment -- it's also profitable.

Other large energy companies, from California to Florida, also have projects in the works here in Minnesota. Earlier this year, Xcel signed another agreement with state lawmakers.

In exchange for additional storage capacity at the Prairie Island nuclear plant, Xcel's pledged to increase its reliance on renewable energy. That's on top of a legislative goal that says 10 percent of the state's energy should come from renewable sources like wind by the year 2015.

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