Expiring tax credits and pushback from opposition groups pose barriers for the wind power in Minnesota, but the industry shows no signs of slowing down in the breezy southwestern part of the state.
A map from the American Wind Energy Association shows a thick cluster of blue dots in southwestern Minnesota, with each dot representing a wind farm in operation or under development.
At least seven big projects are in the pipeline in the state, which currently gets about 18 percent of its power from the wind, according to the association. Minnesota is eighth in the nation in net generation from wind energy.
Together, the seven projects are expected to produce more than 1,400 megawatts of clean energy and represent more than $2 billion of investment. Each megawatt can power about 525 homes, according to Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, a major wind farm developer in the state.
Though support for wind farms is strong among environmentalists and some landowners, not everyone is on board. Critics say the turbines are unsightly, noisy and detrimental to wildlife.
In Freeborn County, for example, hundreds of residents circulated petitions to kill a project that would have added dozens of 400-foot wind towers to the landscape, as the Associated Press reported in February.
Even so, the wind industry in Minnesota is in “rapid growth” mode as developers and owners take advantage of federal production tax credits before those incentives begin to “phase down” in value starting in 2021, said Tim Maag, vice president and general manager of Golden Valley-based Mortenson’s wind power business.
“We expect the pace to continue well into the 2020s as technological and market innovations help wind maintain and even improve its competitiveness with other sources of generation,” Maag said in an email.
“Fossil fuel requirements and electrification of transportation should continue to fuel demand for clean, water-free sources of power like wind,” Maag said.
Mortenson is currently teaming with Xcel Energy on the two-phase Blazing Star development, which is proposed for a site in Lincoln County near the South Dakota border. The project will generate 200 megawatts in each phase, according to Mortenson.
Blazing Star 1 will be built in 2019, and Blazing Star 2 construction is scheduled for 2019 and 2020.
Xcel Energy said last Friday that it is taking over development of Blazing Star 1 from Edina-based Geronimo Energy. Blazing Star 1 will generate enough electricity to power 100,000 homes. Geronimo has said the project represents a total investment of $320 million.
The Blazing Star project will connect to the recently completed CapX2020 transmission lines. Construction on substations and transmission infrastructure will begin this year, Xcel said.
Lack of transmission capacity has limited wind development, and inconsistent policies have made long-term planning and investment difficult, but “we should be coming through that,” Maag said.
“Now it’s more of a question of demand growth and cost competitiveness,” Maag added. “We are particularly focused on the latter to make our product [wind energy] the most competitive form of energy in the industry.”
Kevin Pranis, marketing manager for the Laborers International Union of North America of Minnesota and North Dakota, said there’s some competition between wind and solar, but the two sources of renewable energy also serve different niches.
Wind is likely to see a boom in the next couple of years because developers must complete their project by the end of 2020 to get the full production tax credit, Pranis said. Solar will see more steady growth, he said.
Randy Fordice, an Xcel spokesman, said wind developers look at a number of factors when evaluating opportunities. That includes wind speed and capacity, which means the amount of time the wind will be strong enough to produce energy, he said.
At Xcel’s Grand Meadow wind farm near Rochester, for example, production starts when wind speeds are 9 mph and reaches full output at 27 mph, according to Xcel. The wind farm is southeast of Interstate 90 in the townships of Grand Meadow, Clayton and Dexter in Mower County, according to the utility.
Other factors are access to transmission lines and landowners who are “interested in hosting a farm,” Fordice said.
From a jobs perspective, a big concern of the trade unions is putting local people to work.
Unions want the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to require contractors to be more transparent when it comes to using local or non-local workers, and to consider local labor as a factor in approving projects.
Pranis said wind projects create roughly one job for each megawatt of power produced. Laborers, operating engineers, electricians and millwrights are among the trades that typically work on a wind project.
Pranis said wind is a specialized industry with only a handful of major contractors. Every contractor in the industry has “a national business model and works all over the country,” he said.
While contractors like Mortenson lean heavily on local workers, others travel around the country with their own crews, Pranis said. Pranis said he has seen an increase in projects built with non-local labor in recent years.
Maag said Mortenson prefers to build its wind projects with a local workforce when possible.
“We also have expert craft workers who travel for our wind energy projects and who help provide training and expertise for local hires,” he said. “These wind expert craft workers often begin their Mortenson career as a local hire,” he said.