MELROSE – If Charles Grell has his way, small wind turbines someday will dot the Central Minnesota landscape, producing renewable energy to power farms, other businesses and rural homes.
As president and founder of Gone 2 Green, a Cold Spring wind turbine supplier, Grell installs 120-foot-high turbines manufactured by Oklahoma-based Bergey Windpower for landowners like Art Weber, who’s had one turning on his Melrose Township farm since December 2010.
These are a far cry from the massive wind farms in southern Minnesota and Iowa, with dozens of turbines reaching as high as 400 feet into the sky. Instead, it’s going “back to the 1920s style of producing power where you use it,” Grell said.
Grell’s concept got a big boost last week when Xcel Energy recommended that it receive a grant from its Renewable Development Fund. The project would consist of installing 50 10-kilowatt Bergey turbines for landowners with 5 acres or more in Stearns, Benton and Meeker counties. Landowners would still have to pay a share of the cost, but the grant would reduce the amount and shorten the payback period.
It’s a unique proposal that hasn’t been tried in Minnesota. Individual landowners have put up turbines to produce green energy and reduce their electric bills, but this is the first effort to develop a clustered small wind project.
“It would be just nice to see a small project like this get started here in the state of Minnesota,” Grell said. “When you consider that you can put small wind almost everywhere in Minnesota as long as you get to about (a) 120-foot tower, it just makes a lot of sense to think that every rural home in Minnesota could be producing its own power.”
The turbines would be connected to the electrical grid, so if they did produce more electricity than the landowner needs, the excess could be used elsewhere. However, they aren’t expected to be major producers, but to generate power where it’s needed.
“These are small turbines that are sized for homes and farms,” said Mike Bergey, president of Bergey Windpower. “Most, if not all, of the electricity will be used on site.”
Bergey has some clusters of turbines in New York and Southern California, but its turbines in Minnesota are spread out. Grell has installed 16 around the state, including Melrose, Princeton and Starbuck.
“Depending on where you’re at, of course there’s variances in what you’re going to produce,” Grell said. “But no matter how you look at it, it’s still clean energy.”
Xcel’s Renewable Development Fund was created as part of a 1994 compromise in exchange for permission to store spent fuel at its Prairie Island nuclear plant.
Xcel periodically solicits proposals for the start-up and expansion of renewable energy projects and companies, then recommends which projects should be funded to the state Public Utilities Commission. The PUC is expected to make a decision by November.
The $1.1 million for the Bergey turbines is among $30.1 million in projects Xcel is recommending. Most are solar, the most popular renewable technology of late, said Paul Lehman, Xcel’s compliance and filings manager.
“This one looked interesting in the concept that it was smaller, (and) it involved a distributed version of wind,” Lehman said.
One of the project’s goals is to increase public awareness that wind energy can be done on a small scale, Lehman said. Minnesota’s wind turbine manufacturers will benefit from the visibility, he said.
In other parts of the country, word of mouth among landowners has helped spread the message of the benefits of wind energy, Bergey said.
“If you start seeing a number of turbines in an area, it just increases market interest and gives confidence in the technology,” he said. “People start asking about it at the barbecues and church gatherings.”
Bergey believes it won’t be difficult to find 50 landowners interested in putting up turbines. In fact, he predicts there might be a waiting list.
Grell estimates that the typical landowner who puts up one of the turbines sees a savings of $180-$200 a month on his or her electric bill. Some landowners are able to produce nearly all the electricity they need with the turbine, and a few even receive a check from the utility every month because they produce more than they use, he said.
The cost of a turbine is about $64,000, Grell said, but a 30 percent federal tax credit helps lower that amount. With the Xcel grant, the amount would be far more affordable at about $24,000, he said.
It’s easier to get approval to install a small wind turbine, because only local permits are needed. Large wind farms are required to get a certificate of need and permit from the state PUC.
The smaller turbines are typically less offensive to neighbors, and they don’t generate the same type of concerns about noise, shadow flicker and threat to wildlife such as birds and bats like their large counterparts.
Xcel’s recommendation of the Bergey project doesn’t signal a shift away from supporting large wind projects to help meet the state’s renewable energy standards, Lehman said. He noted that the company recently announced its intent to seek power from three large wind farms in Minnesota and North Dakota.
“I think that will still be the case,” Lehman said. “What we’re really just acknowledging and recognizing is there is growing interest in distributed generation.”