United States

United States

Celebrating jobs and income in America's heartland

At grand style dedication ceremonies for two of America's Midwest wind farms--Enron's 104 MW Lake Benton II and 193 MW Storm Lake wind projects--locals heard from politicans, officials and wind advocates how wind can help them to survive falilng incomes from the depressed farming sector.

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Enron Wind Corp threw a party in Lake Benton, Minnesota, and nearly the whole town of 700 came. Joined by local and national politicians, government officials and long time wind power advocates, the town's residents helped Enron to dedicate its 104 MW Lake Benton II wind farm at a giant barbecue in the town centre. The next day, the "WindFest" continued just over the border in the town of Alta, Iowa, where Enron dedicated its 193 MW Storm Lake wind farm.

The enthusiasm of residents for their local wind turbines, spread along Buffalo Ridge and visible from the main streets of both towns, was not a moment in doubt. As well as clean electricity, the wind farms have brought jobs and money to these small farming communities. Buffalo Ridge stretches from northern Iowa and southwest Minnesota to South Dakota and was described during the ceremonies as the "Saudi Arabia of wind energy."

On old fashioned lamp poles in Lake Benton town centre, banners flapped in the constant wind, proclaiming it to be the "Original Wind Power Capital of the Midwest." Three large turbine blades were inscribed in red cement-a contribution of industrial art by Enron Wind. Lake Benton, says Mayor Marlin Thompson, is a town where "being a good neighbour still means something," referring to Enron's contribution to town life. "Enron put Lake Benton in the forefront nationally and internationally," he added. "As you can see, this is a small community that has embraced wind power." Thompson is spearheading a local effort to start a Wind Energy Learning Centre with help from Enron and possibly the US Department of Energy.

Minnesota congressman David Minge was enthusiastic too. "This is a phenomenal development we have here on Buffalo Ridge. When I was growing up, southwest Minnesota was a wasteland with wind. Now we have alfalfa as biomass, corn as ethynol. It's all another way of taking what we produce in abundance and harnessing it," he said.

The wind farms have brought jobs and a healthier tax base, says Thompson, and they have helped to diversify an economy that until now has been almost 100% farming. When Enron installed 281, 750 kW Zond turbines in two stages at Lake Benton, 150 construction workers were needed. Now there are 25 permanent jobs, with most of the workers living in Lake Benton or one of the surrounding communities. Storm Lake, the largest single wind project in the world, also brought 25 permanent jobs to the area; 20 of these are in operation and maintenance, 19 of which went to people in the area. The good thing about these jobs, Thompson said, is they pay well. The biggest surprise, however, is the tourists. "Tourism and wind power go together," Thompson said. "Everyone must feel like we do. We think the turbines are picturesque."

In Iowa the next day, state senator Bill Fink echoed Thompson's thoughts. "Iowa doesn't have majestic mountains. We don't have a Grand Canyon, or thousands of miles of beautiful beaches, but we do have what you see behind me," Fink said, pointing to some of the 257 turbines at the Storm Lake facility, towering over the flat landscape.

-----Another crop

Minnesota and Iowa are states of America's heartland, where the US has earned a reputation as the "bread basket of the world." Here, wind turbines are surrounded by abundant fields of corn and soy beans. But farmers here have been producing more and getting less for their efforts. The wind turbines are thus "another crop in America today," according to Enron's Ken Karas. He was not the only speaker to refer to them as as new income for hard pressed farmers.

Mary Plagman, a land owner who lives atop Buffalo Ridge at the Storm Lake facility, said she is completely surrounded by turbines and she likes it. "Enron pays us very well to have turbines on our land," she said. "They pay us an annual payment for the right of way. They pay us for crop damage if there is any and they maintain the gravel roads." Although she would not say how much she is paid every year, it has been reported to be about $700 per turbine per year. In addition, she said, Enron has projected what the output of each turbine should be during every month of the year. If it exceeds that output, she will receive a quarterly payment for a portion of the excess. "I'm really looking forward to that payment," she said.

Utilities, well represented, and regulators-conspicuous by their absence-were challenged to continue to develop the wind resource in Iowa and Minnesota. David Osterberg of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and once a driving force behind a law in the mid 1980s requiring utilities to invest in wind power, called for a goal for wind to provide at least 10% of Iowa's energy. According to David Aitken of the Union of Concerned Scientists, that amount in Iowa alone would provide 70,000 job years and $300 million in new net disposable income. "We would be able to keep farmers in the fields because they would have an additional income," Aitken said. Plus, he said, it would keep money in the state. "Every dollar spent here, instead of for imported coal, would be multiplied for people in Iowa," he added.

In Iowa, a message from US Senator Tom Harkin described wind power as being important for both environmental and economic reasons. It represents good jobs for the community and produces millions of kilowatt hours of clean energy every year, he said.

From state to country

Minnesota utility Northern States Power (NSP), under state mandate to add 825 MW of wind to its generating portfolio by 2012, buys most of the output of the Lake Benton I and II wind farms, worth a total capacity of about 211 MW. NSP's customers "say they want renewable wind power in their mix of resources," said NSP's Audrey Zibelman at the ceremony.

Such state mandates would be better off at the national level, however, said Erroll Davis, president and CEO of Alliant Energy, which buys 40% of Storm Lake's output. "The US government should put renewable mandates into place," Davis said. "If the cost of wind is higher, we bear the cost and others don't, which puts us at a competitive disadvantage." A national mandate would remove the disadvantage, he said.

What was made clear at Enron's WindFests was the success of coalitions of unlikely partners which got both Lake Benton and Storm Lake facilities on-line. Despite their conflicts in other arenas, the mixture of industry leaders, government officials and environmental advocates gathered all agreed the projects would not have happened without the coalitions or the support of local communities.

"In 1993 and 1994, when we were in some very difficult negotiations, we put together a coalition of interests and the final result turned out to be bigger and better than we imagined," said Minnesota state senator Steve Novack, who worked on legislation to mandate renewable energy in the state. "We knew it was a winner environmentally. We knew it was a winner economically. It was just a matter of putting the two together."

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