Just south of Interstate 90 near Blue Earth, the blades of a huge wind turbine spin in a rhythmic churn. It’s part of a wind farm that’s generating electricity for the power grid, and money for the people who own the land it sits on.
“It’s good economic development for the farmer that wants to have a tower on his land,” said Fairbault County Commissioner Tom Warmka, “and maximize his income from every acre.”
Standing beneath the big machine, Warmka said a lack of adequate transmission lines has slowed the development of new wind farms in south-central Minnesota. But that could change if the planned 345-kilovolt Huntley-Wilmarth power line is built. It would stretch from the northwest corner of Fairbault County about 45 miles north to Mankato, in Blue Earth County.
“Once there’s transmission capabilities on a power line, developers are there,” said Warmka.
And so are the protests. The Blue Earth turbine is part of a wind farm that neighbors and others have complained about, mainly that the machines are too noisy. The state has ordered the farm’s owner to monitor and fix any problems.
The Huntley-Wilmarth line is one of two major wind projects in the planning stages in Faribault County. But opposition to the projects have made it unclear if either will be built.
One group, called Wind Locked, is organizing farmers who oppose having a wind turbine on their land.
“These are large industrial parks and we just don’t want them,” said Wind Locked’s president, Carolyn Zierke.
More than 80 farmers and rural homeowners in Faribault County have joined the group. They don’t want to put wind turbines on productive farmland, and they’re also concerned about noise from the machines.
“They’re very proud of their land,” said Zierke. “They don’t want to give the control up of the land that they’ve worked so hard to get.”
There have been protests in other parts of south-central Minnesota, too: A group in Freeborn County hopes to block a proposed wind farm there. But despite the opposition, there are still plenty of landowners who want wind farms and the payments they bring. Farmers can earn thousands of dollars a year for each wind turbine built on their land.
Farmers’ interest in wind power has pushed development far ahead of schedule. The state’s original goal was to have 25 percent of its electricity produced from renewable sources like wind by 2025. Last week, Gov. Mark Dayton announced that Minnesota has already reached that goal, seven years early.
For south-central Minnesota, the Huntley-Wilmarth power line project will likely increase the push for wind energy in that part of the state. Supporters say the new power line is crucial to reducing congestion on the existing electricity transmission grid.
“This Huntley to Wilmarth project is an example of a project that’s alleviating a pinch point,” said Teresa Mogensen, Xcel Energy’s senior vice president of transmission. “That will really unlock a lot of additional capacity to move wind power from where it’s being generated to where it’s being used.”
At times, those pinch points can be so severe that they actually reduce wind farms’ power output. The power lines simply can’t carry any more electricity.
“You have to reduce or stop generating in that situation until the congestion on the grid is gone,” said Mogensen.
But congested power lines are not the only potential challenge in wind power development. Public opposition could be another.
“A lot of landowners just don’t know where to turn or what to do,” said Carolyn Zierke of Wind Locked.
Most landowner questions about proposed wind projects across the state eventually end up in front of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, the main regulatory agency for wind farms. But if opponents are successful, it could have an impact on how many turbine blades churn across the state’s landscape in the future.