"To push harder for renewables, we need to have data in order to do it responsibly," said Bull. "In the meantime, while we're doing this, we're focused on wind energy and natural gas costs and pushing utilities beyond where their comfort level is. We'll continue to push for more renewables where we see the benefits to consumers."
Minnesota currently gets 11 percent of its electricity from renewable resources – mostly from hydropower and a smaller portion from wind and other resources.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Administration wants to see the percent of electricity from renewable resources increased to 20 percent by 2015. They also want a large amount of that electricity to come from wind generation.
But wind energy still has some significant barriers to overcome. The main concern has been talked about before – adequate transmission lines are needed to get the electricity from the windy west side to the populated east side of Minnesota.
"Transmission – this is a huge issue," said Mike Bull, Minnesota assistant commissioner for Renewable Energy & Advanced Technologies. "To use that wind, we need to get transmission."
Minnesotans annually pay millions of dollars in curtailment payments – payments to wind developers who put up their wind projects here, but because of transmission constraints, can’t get their electricity on to the transmission grid.
That means some wind turbines here are sometimes spinning but not producing electricity – there’s no room for the electricity on the grid.
More than 100 people met on Nov. 8 to talk about issues related to renewable energy at the West Central Research & Outreach Center, in Morris. State representative Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake) hosted the event and Aaron Peterson (D-Madison) also participated in the program.
Renewable energy sources currently make up 11 percent of Minnesota’s electrical use. The renewable sources of electricity include 11.4 percent from wind, 3.2 percent from biomass, 11 percent from refuse derived fuel, and 74.1 percent comes from hydropower.
By 2015, the Pawlenty Administration wants more than 20 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources. Experts think 60.4 percent will come from wind, 5.5 percent from biomass, 4.4 percent from refuse derived fuel and 29.5 percent from hydropower.
"We’re on track for 20 percent renewable energy by 2015, but that includes a large hydro and wind base," said Bull. "The discussions that we had last legislative session and again this session will mean up to 20 percent wind. There are costs associated with operationally handling wind at that level."
Wind proponents are strongly in favor of additional transmission infrastructure and investment.
In 2005, Minnesota’s legislators passed an omnibus energy bill that contains incentives to streamline cost recovery to utilities for transmission investment.
"The utilities are following through," said Bull. "In the next couple of months, we’ll have more proposals for high voltage transmission lines in the state than we’ve had in the past 20 years all together."
In addition, Minnesota legislators passed the Community Based Energy Development (CBED) plan that encourages communities to develop wind energy projects for their communities.
The legislators passed a bill that helps communities receive production payments sooner. In general, electrical companies provide 20 years contracts for wind, and it may take 10 years for the community or developers to pay for the equipment. Each 1 MW turbine costs about $1 million to install – so a 20 MW project would cost about $20 million.
The CBED tariff requires the utility to pay a higher rate for electricity produced during the first 10 years of the contract – during the debt servicing – in exchange for paying a lower rate for the next 10 years, after the debt service is paid off.
Currently, Minnesota has 615 MW of wind energy installed. To reach the 20 percent renewable energy goal by 2015, Minnesota will need to install approximately 2,400 MW more of additional wind energy.
"What we’re looking at when we are adding a great deal of wind, the governor wants to make sure the vast majority of that is community based," said Bull. "The reason for that is it allows communities to capture energy dollars that would otherwise be leaving that community – potentially leaving the state."
Another challenge with wind energy is that the wind blows intermittently. Communities and electrical companies have to plan to often use an alternative source of electricity when the wind doesn’t blow.
With plenty of challenges to work on, producing electricity with the wind still has its hurdles to overcome.
To address these challenges, the 2005 legislature mandated an independent statewide study on the costs and liability impacts of 20 percent wind on Minnesota’s system. That data will be available in November 2006, said Bull.
"To push harder for renewables, we need to have data in order to do it responsibly," said Bull. "In the meantime, while we’re doing this, we’re focused on wind energy and natural gas costs and pushing utilities beyond where their comfort level is. We’ll continue to push for more renewables where we see the benefits to consumers."
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