It’s hard to miss the development of renewable energy at the University of Minnesota campus in Morris. What can be more difficult to see, but no less significant, is the growing number and variety of smaller renewable energy projects setting roots all around the region.
WILLMAR, Minn. - It’s hard to miss the development of renewable energy at the University of Minnesota campus in Morris.
There are now two, 1.6-megawatt wind generators towering over the prairie and cranking out enough kilowatts to provide 60 percent of the electrical needs on campus. A heating system utilizing locally harvested biomass produces 25 percent of the thermal energy required on campus, with expectations of meeting 50 percent of needs next year.
What can be more difficult to see, but no less significant, is the growing number and variety of smaller renewable energy projects setting roots all around the region. In recent years 17 different “net metering" projects have been added by customers on the Kandiyohi Power Cooperative’s distribution grid, for example. Using small wind generators or solar photovoltaic panels, customers are producing a portion of their own electricity and selling any excess back to the grid.
Renewable energy systems of all types — from small wind generators to methane digesters — are being installed on farms, homes and businesses throughout southwestern Minnesota. Participants from throughout western Minnesota gathered recently at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center to identify the projects and to help chart the way for more.
The gathering was hosted by the West Central Clean Energy Resource Team.
The almost unnoticed proliferation of small projects may be more significant in some ways than the large, attention getting projects.
John Duevel, of Three Seasons and More in Willmar, has been involved in renewable energy since the 1970s. He knows how vulnerable the renewable energy industry can be to volatility in fossil fuel markets, and manipulation by oil cartels.
What’s changing now, said Duevel, is that many of the renewable energy projects are smaller and more responsive to changing markets. “We know what to do now, we can move in and out of renewable energy," he told the participants. “We’re doing a lot of good, small things that are having an impact."
There are plenty of big things happening too. Last year saw the Adams and Danielson Wind farms near Cosmos and Grove City put 24 large wind turbines to work. Early reports indicate that output from the 1.65-megawatt turbines is exceeding expectations.
The gathering at Prairie Woods attracted approximately 40 renewable energy supporters from 12 different counties. They discussed a variety of issues, from the potential for refuse-derived fuel to policy and outreach needs.
It was apparent that expectations for renewable energy in the region are growing as fast — and in some ways as quietly — as are the number of new systems showing up in the countryside. “We’re only scratching the surface," said Clean Energy Resource Team coordinator and meeting host Jeff Vetsch as the list of projects took shape.