Worthington, Minn. — It's hard to miss the dramatic changes wind energy has made in southwest Minnesota. Drive through the area and you'll see the long blades of wind turbines slicing through the air.
Tyler Juhl helps keep the machines running. Juhl, a wind mechanic, climbs wind turbines to make sure the million-dollar machines are running properly. On this day he opens a small hatch and steps on to the top of a wind generator near the tiny town of Woodstock.
From his perch 200 feet above the ground, Juhl has a great view of the growing wind industry. As far as the eye can see are clusters of wind towers and the communities they help support.
"I can see the towers in Wilmont, Chandler. I can see Lake Wilson pretty easily. We can easily see Pipestone," says Juhl.
A couple miles to the north, Juhl views some wind turbines he helped build over the summer. They're owned by a farm family, Doug and Pam Fey. In early July, Pam Fey watched as a big part of her family's future took shape.
"To us, this is another cash crop," says Fey.
The two turbines the Feys built cost about $1 million each. But they'll last a long time, maybe 40 years. Fey says in some ways, wind energy is less risky than growing corn.
"Combines cost you $150,000. You use it two, three, maybe four weeks out of the year. This costs you over a million dollars, but it runs 365 days a year. So when it all boils right down, I think this is a better investment," says Fey.
It's estimated farmers can make between $15,000 and $30,000 per year off a two turbine setup. Once the machines are paid for, profits could approach $100,000 per year. Fey says the key factor is the electricity contract.
"We have a contract with Xcel for 25 years," says Fey.
Xcel Energy will pay the Feys a set price for the electricity their machines generate. Using that guaranteed revenue as collateral, the Feys were able to borrow the money they needed to build the wind turbines. It's the newest phase of wind development -- the drive to keep profits in the state.
Minnesota is among the nation's leaders in wind energy production, ranking fourth behind California, Texas and Iowa. But a large share of the profits leave the state. General Electric owns a wind farm near Lake Benton in southwest Minnesota. Florida Power and Light owns turbines in the same area. But there is a growing trend toward local ownership.
A group of farmers in southwest Minnesota has started its own home-grown wind company called Minwind. Mark Willers is president of the group.
"We're trying to keep the revenue out here in greater Minnesota," says Willers.
Nearly 70 people, mostly farmers, invested in the business. They built four wind turbines. Standing at the base of one of the machines, Willers says the wind project brings jobs and hope to the area.
"When you show the young people in your community that you can do something that's right, and it's clean energy, it's good. Makes sense that they know that they can go out and do things, too," says Willers.
A big part of what makes local wind production possible is incentives from state and federal governments. The incentives can total more than $100,000 a year for a single wind turbine. The goal is to encourage farmers and others into the business. That has a spin-off effect -- local jobs.
A manufacturing company in the tiny town of Porter, Minnesota, is an example. SMI & Hydraulics has built all sorts of things out of steel, including the steam train which sits atop the left field wall at the Houston Astros baseball stadium. For the past several years, it has built towers to hold wind generators.
On the floor of the factory, company president Gary Stoks stands next to what will be a wind tower 225 feet tall. It'll support a generator which can weigh more than 50,000 pounds. Stoks says the steel tower tapers from bottom to top.
"Ranges from 13 ft. 9 in. on the base and the bottom side. By the time it gets to the very top, we're at 6 ft. 8," says Stoks.
Stoks' company is close to a unique land formation which is home to much of the state's wind power. Buffalo Ridge slices across southwest Minnesota from near Pipestone to Worthington. Because it's several hundred feet high, the ridge catches more wind than the surrounding countryside. Nearly 500 turbines are producing electricity there.
Stoks says SMI would like to build more towers for the ridge. Already it's one of the most important segments of the company's business.
"We figure right now we're up to probably between 30 and 40 percent. But we'd like to get it higher," says Stoks.
SMI has plans to do that. Jeff Bendel helps with design and estimating work at the company. He unrolls a blueprint for a new manufacturing plant.
"It would employ up to another 40 to 50 people. Local contractors for the whole job. With this facility, we think that we can put out at least 200 to 250 towers a year," says Bendel.
Whether the company builds the plant depends on how much business they can line up. Bendel believes the wind industry will continue to grow. He says production costs are falling as the generators improve.
"They run themselves with low maintenance and a high degree of reliability. Wind is able to compete with coal and definitely surpass gas, the way natural gas prices are going," says Bendel.
Wind energy has its critics. Some people call the towers eyesores. Others say they're a hazard to birds. Some say since wind speeds fluctuate all the time, wind energy is undependable. But supporters say the industry has improved siting and tower design to avoid birds and the "eyesore" label.
The one thing they can't do anything about is the speed of the wind. On a calm day, there's no electricity produced. But with improved blade design, wind turbines can produce electricity even in light breezes. From his seat on top of a wind machine near Woodstock, Tyler Juhl says improvements are coming fast.
"The towers and the turbines are getting better and better every year. The blades are getting more efficient. I think within the next probably two or three years, we're just going to build the ultimate turbine," says Juhl.
If that happens, the new machines will affect all the major wind producing states, including Minnesota. For one thing, it'll give Tyler Juhl his tallest perch yet. And it could spur more development.
As he scans the clusters of wind turbines breaking the horizon, Juhl says he's impressed with what's happened already. He predicts good days ahead, as far as the eye can see.