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An uncertain future
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The American Wind Energy Association's John Dunlop stands under a wind turbine in Elk River. Its location on Highway 169 makes it the most visible wind turbine in the state. Dunlop hopes this turbine will help get Minnesotans thinking more about the possibilities of wind energy. (MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)
In recent years, federal and state governments have passed laws to encourage more wind development. Despite the help, wind experts say developing the resource remains a tricky prospect. That's largely because the country's transmission grid is built for energy from more manageable and predictable resources like coal, hydropower, and natural gas.

Elk River, Minn. — If you drive along Highway 169 just north of Elk River, you may notice a 65-ft. tall wind turbine. Wind energy advocate John Dunlop says the turbine doesn't produce much electricity, and isn't making money for its developer.

But that's not why it's here.

"It's a very accessible site," says Dunlop. "I'm always amused with the number of people who come back from vacation and say, 'I saw a wind turbine on my way to the cabin or Brainerd on 169!'"

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Image Elk River's wind turbine

And that's its purpose -- to get people accustomed to wind energy. Dunlop works for the American Wind Energy Association. He says wind power used to be too expensive to generate for commercial purposes. But federal and state tax credits, as well as advances in wind turbine technology, have made wind energy affordable.

A comparative study by Dunlop's organization shows that, with the help of government subsidies, the cost of wind energy is at around 4 cents per kilowatt hour. This is at or below the current cost of energy from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

"Now, wind energy is competitive with any other generation from any other power plant," says Dunlop. "Consequently, we are in a transition in philosophy with companies who purchase power. It's not a cost hit for them now. They just simply need to integrate wind energy into their generation system."

The key word is integration. For utilities, integrating wind with their more traditional sources of power generation can be a tricky business. At a facility in Minneapolis, a handful of engineers work around the clock to manage the electricity load for all of Xcel Energy's 1.3 million customers in the surrounding area. Its exact location is undisclosed to the public because of security concerns.

We have to do things differently in this world for us to continue to exist, and I think this is an excellent way of doing that.
- John Dunlop, American Wind Energy Association

Twelve-foot high video screens wrap around the room, which is about half the size of a football field. Data from all of Xcel's power sources flash on the screens in real time. Control Center manager Mike McMullen is carefully watching a screen that monitors current wind output from all of Xcel's turbines.

"Right now we're looking at 170 megawatts total wind, and 150 down in southwestern Minnesota," says McMullen.

The amount of electricity being produced by wind turbines at this moment -- 170 megawatts -- is enough to power 170,000 homes. It represents just 3 percent of Xcel's total energy load from all of its power sources.

However, this figure will more than triple in the next six years. The Minnesota Legislature is requiring Xcel to supply at least 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010.

But according to Jim Alders, Xcel's manager of regulatory projects, one look at the video screen illustrates the challenges of wind power. One moment, the screen reads 170 megawatts of wind energy. Four seconds later, it's down to 164 megawatts. Then it's back up to 172, and so on. Unlike other available energy sources, wind is intermittent. And according to Alders, this is the problem.

"If the output from wind turbines is at a peak, that means that we have to scale back our coal-fired power plants, we have to scale back our natural gas-fired power plants," says Alders.

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Image Xcel's Transmission Control Center

But according to Alders, most power plants aren't designed to be ramped up and down rapidly. When the system is generating too much electricity, the utility's only option, he says, is to start shutting down wind turbines.

"Under those circumstances, we're not sure how much additional wind power development can occur," says Alders. "Traditionally, wind power developers have depended on being paid for all of their output whenever they can deliver it."

Alders says Xcel is getting to the point where wind accounts for 10 percent of its production capacity. He says up to now, a combination of wind and natural gas energy has been very economical for Xcel. But, he says wind power's intermittent nature makes anything over 10 percent a questionable investment.

And there's another concern for utilities like Xcel. It's literally where the wind blows.

Back in Elk River, the American Wind Energy Association's John Dunlop pulls out a map of the United States. It's not marked with state boundaries. Instead, it's zig-zagged by purple, orange, green and blue lines -- many of them over major urban centers. This is the electric transmission grid.

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Image Mike McMullen

The web of transmission lines covers most of the country. However, there are areas where the lines stop. These are called transmission constraints.

Ironically, says Dunlop, one of these major transmission constraints is a north-south line of emptiness located precisely where the wind blows hardest -- in North and South Dakota. Dunlop says it's human nature to build out of the wind. As a result, there are few cities in the windiest parts of the country, making transmission one of the biggest impediments for wind.

According to energy trade experts, the average cost of a new transmission line is $1 million per mile. When a utility like Xcel builds new lines, this cost is covered through rate hikes for its customers. Under the current system, the hundreds of miles of transmission lines necessary to fill the transmission constraint in the Dakotas means higher energy bills for the average consumer.

Groups like the American Wind Energy Association and Wind on the Wires are working with regional regulators to look for solutions to the transmission conundrum.

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Image Jim Alders of Xcel Energy

Standing under the rapidly-rotating Elk River wind turbine on clear day, all of these problems are temporarily forgotten for John Dunlop. As he marvels at the sheer size of the structure, he talks about how he became passionate about wind energy as a Peace Corps volunteer.

"Recognizing the need for energy and the human condition in India was a vital combination for me. It made it clear that we have to do things differently in this world for us to continue to exist, and I think this is an excellent way of doing that," says Dunlop.

Dunlop says his organization is working with lawmakers in Washington to ensure the federal energy bill will continue to drive down the cost of wind, and help address transmission issues.

Now that transmission is in the national spotlight because of the August blackout in the East, wind advocates are confident Congress is paying a little more attention.

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