Wind energy advocate aims to put turbines on central Minnesota farms

Charles Grell envisions small wind turbines on farms across central Minnesota, generating electricity and saving farmers money. “My whole thing is to produce energy where you use it,” said Grell, a wind advocate and CEO of Gone2Green, a Cold Spring-based turbine installation company. “I’m not saying we don’t need big wind. We need all of it. But we can scatter these all over. Two-thirds of rural Minnesota has good wind.”

Grell’s vision got a boost recently, when Xcel Energy recommended that Gone2Green and partner Bergey Windpower, an Oklahoma-based turbine manufacturer, receive a $1.1 million grant from its Renewable Development Fund to install 50 turbines in Stearns, Meeker and Benton counties. The recommendation is in the hands of the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which is expected to render a decision in the next few months.

While small-scale solar has drawn a lot of attention lately, especially with the passage of state legislation establishing cooperatively-owned “solar gardens” and requiring some utilities to provide more solar-derived power, many consider wind the domain of big operators. Typical industrial turbines are expensive, can top 300 feet, require large “fall zones” around them and often draw community opposition for impacts on wildlife.

Grell’s project would be unique in that it would cluster so-called “small wind,” 10-kilowatt turbines that are just over 100 feet tall and generate power for the properties where they are located. Grell, an installer for Bergey, hopes to show that, like solar, wind energy can be local and accessible to the individual.

A wind turbine installed by Gone2Green. (Photo courtesy Charles Grell)

Xcel Energy apparently shares that goal. According to a July report from the utility describing the clustered wind project and others to the PUC, “(S)mall wind technology has some image problems in Minnesota and this project could help demonstrate small wind viability.”

Today, power from small, dispersed sources—often called “distributed generation”—is a tiny piece of the overall renewable energy picture in Minnesota. But that piece is growing and causing big utilities to look hard at the ways they provide energy, as MPR News’ Stephanie Hemphill reports here and on Morning Edition today.

Grell said it will be easy to find 50 farmers interested in buying wind turbines. While the installed cost is around $67,000 per turbine, he said once you subtract a 30 percent federal tax credit, a $22,000 Xcel grant and depreciation over time, the out-of-pocket-cost comes out to less than $25,000. “These will take only a couple of years to pay for themselves,” Grell said. “A conservative number is five years with all the incentives.” After that, most or all of a farmer’s electricity would be free. “You no longer worry about an electric bill and don’t care if it costs 14 or 18 cents or 22 cents (per kilowatt hour).”

“I (will) have 50 people eager,” he said. “What I’ve tried to do is stay away from corporations and do this all with the public. This is designed for the public.”

Grell thinks small wind could even be a good economic development strategy for rural communities, since excess wind energy can be sold back to local utilities. “Small wind has a huge place here in Minnesota,” he said. “We have a ton of rural communities and a big huge farming state…. Think about all those rural homes and all that space. We can plop these things down.”