The people in Lakefield, a small farming community in southwest Minnesota, can look across the prairie in three directions and see fields of wind turbines.
But the blades aren’t turning for them. The 137 machines that tower above rows of corn and soybeans produce electricity for a utility two states away: Indianapolis Power & Light Co.
The wind farm, commissioned last month, is the first in Minnesota built solely for export.
Across the nation, utilities are looking far afield for wind power, often to satisfy clean energy goals. The practice, which began on the East and West coasts, is becoming common in the Upper Midwest, which some experts believe is poised to become a major exporter of wind power.
The far-flung generation, in some cases three states away from customers, feeds into regional grids, which connect utilities into multistate electricity pools. Utility customers who pay for the wind power are unlikely to use it directly.
“It is like putting a bucket of water in one part of a lake and taking one out somewhere else,” said Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for Appalachian Power, based in Charleston, W.Va., which buys power from a wind farm in Illinois, puts it on the grid and draws off electricity two states away.
Power sharing among neighbor states is nothing new. Minnesota, for example, imports electricity from North Dakota, South Dakota and Canada. And any Minnesota-generated power can end up lighting homes in nearby states once it’s on the grid.
Some of the most far-ranging of the new wind power deals are in North Dakota, where two wind farms have agreed to sell electricity to the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally owned power supplier in the Southeast.
On the East Coast, Dominion Resources, a power supplier based in Virginia, gets some of its wind power from Indiana, two states away. In California, utilities have frequently crossed state lines for green energy, and major wind developers in Wyoming are hoping new transmission lines will allow the delivery of even more wind power to the West Coast.
Experts say this is happening because steady breezes don’t blow everywhere, regional grids are getting better connected and the best green-energy deals aren’t always in utilities’ backyards.
“You have to have the wind to do a wind farm,” said Crystal Livers-Powers, spokeswoman for the Indianapolis utility (IP&L), which decided two years ago to add more wind power.
At the time, it got some wind power from a west-central Indiana project. But that region “was getting saturated” with wind farms, she said.
EnXco, the U.S. unit of Paris-based EDF Energies Nouvelles, had built an Indiana wind farm to serve IP&L and made the best offer to build another one – in Minnesota.
In an unusual approval process, Minnesota regulators first asked in-state utilities if the export deal would hinder their ability to meet the state’s 25 percent renewable energy target. They didn’t see a problem.
“Fortunately in the Upper Midwest, we have got a tremendous wind resource and there have been efforts for a number of years to figure out ways to essentially export the power to places that might not be quite as windy,” said Kate O’Hair, Midwest regional director of EnXco, which sells power to IP&L under a 20-year agreement.
Local economic boost
The wind farm at Lakefield, population 1,600, has brought jobs, rent payments and higher tax revenue.
“The wind industry has been a bright spot in the economy over the last three years or four years because there has been a policy in place to develop these resources,” said Beth Soholt, director of Wind on the Wires, a Minnesota based nonprofit that advocates better grid access for wind power.
Though the construction workers are gone, EnXco hired eight permanent employees to service the turbines, working out of a Lakefield building that the company purchased and remodeled.
Lakefield Mayor Darrell Nissen said farmers who lease field space to EnXco are paid $5,000 a year for each turbine. Jackson County expects to collect about $700,000 in production tax revenue each year, with 80 percent going to the county and the rest to townships.
Soholt predicts that export-oriented wind farms like Lakefield’s will be more common as grid capacity improves because “there is way more wind in Minnesota than we need.”
To boost transmission capacity, the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO) has proposed $5.2 billion in line upgrades in seven states.
“We looked at a transmission plan with the idea that wind will be where it is windy, solar will be where it’s sunny,” said Eric Laverty, MISO’s director of transmission access planning.
Not everyone is happy with far-flung clean energy generation.
Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said he’d rather have green jobs and investment stay in Indiana. He also doubts that wind power produced in Minnesota can consistently replace dirtier, fossil-fuel generation two states away.
“Basically you are losing out on two benefits of producing clean electricity locally,” he said.
Indiana this year passed a law that 50 percent of the generation under that state’s voluntary clean energy target must be built in-state. But Ryan Wiser, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who researches renewable energy issues, said such laws may violate the U.S. Constitution’s protections for interstate commerce.
He said the massive power grids are making cross-state power deals economically advantageous, which can benefit consumers. And no matter where a wind turbine spins, it’s almost certain to offset a dirtier power source, he added.
“There has to be an electron of something else that’s not being generated,” Wiser said. “And that most likely will be from a fossil-fuel plant.”