"Symbolic" Wind Turbines Generating More P.R. Than Power

Now that most of twelve California wind turbines retrofitted for Minnesota winters are finally operational, several cities acknowledged to the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota that the $5 million project may be more suited for generating PR—both good and bad—than producing significant quantities of power.

The wind power project involves utilities in eleven cities scattered scattered across the state from the metro area to East Grand Forks in a consortium called the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (MMPA). Each of the eleven member cities received one turbine, and the twelfth was given to the MMPA owned and operated Faribault Energy Park in Faribault. It was supposed to be a step toward meeting the state renewable energy mandate that requires 25 percent of Minnesota’s power be from renewable energy sources by 2025.

It turns out, however, the twelve wind derricks will produce power for perhaps several hundred homes, hardly making a dent in the MMPA’s 57,000 household and business customers.

“They’re basically for public relations, educational purposes. They’re just not feasible for any significant amount of electrical generation,” said Dan Voss, Municipal Utilities Director for the City of Anoka.

The idea of a green energy public relations campaign is acknowledged up front in what’s called the Hometown WindPower project’s criteria for the turbine site selection on member city North St. Paul’s website. The document states the turbine must have “prominent visibility from major roads” and serve to “show each community’s commitment to clean renewable energy.”

The turbines succeeded in attracting publicity from the start, drawing national attention for all the wrong reasons, when the frigid Minnesota temperatures shut down the turbines before they ever got going.

“The original purpose was to help meet our 25 per cent requirement,” said Wally Wysopal, City Manager of North St. Paul. “The other objective is to get people to understand this is going to be a tough objective to hit and these are symbols of that. And I think you can see they’re not easy to get going sometimes.”

At $417,000 per wind turbine, it’s an expensive campaign fueled by federally subsidized Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBS). The revenue or cost savings from the renewable energy are utilized to pay off the bonds over an average of 15 years.

“The CREBS bonds made it reasonable. It is subsidized, it is available, and we took that opportunity,” Wysopal added. “Otherwise, we would not have done it.”

In 2007, MMPA envisioned installing 300 foot tall turbines that would generate as much as 1.5 megawatts of electricity, providing a greater portion of the cities’ daily energy use. But last fall MMPA began installing turbines less than half that height at 115 feet and with about one-tenth of the capacity at 160 kilowatts.

The estimates of how much power will be produced varies: North St. Paul’s website estimates that 110 homes will receive power when the turbines operate at full power; Anoka’s estimate is at 35-40 homes. At least one city utilities director hopes the controversy focuses attention on the danger of over-relying on wind power to meet the state’s renewable energy mandate.

“One fifth of the arable land would have to be taken up by wind turbines to meet the mandate,” Dan Voss said. “It’s just not a good policy and it’s not sustainable and unfortunately, there’s no interest in it until the lights go out.”

Check here forcoverage of another controversial wind power project projectin Minnesota.

Commentsor questions? Contact Tom Steward, FFM Investigative Director: 612-354-2165.

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