Buffalo Ridge

I’d read plenty about Buffalo Ridge, the windiest swath of Minnesota, located in the state’s grassy and treeless southwest quadrant, before I ever got there. I’d heard stories of hats blowing off, of windburn, of tumbleweeds that just kept tumbling. People living in the area are said to suffer perpetual bad hair days. But it was one thing to read about the place and quite another to be there. As I stepped out of my car, the February wind attacked viciously, whipping across my face. I was tempted to crawl back inside and duck for cover.

But I didn’t. I was there to meet a very important person, Dan Juhl, an early pioneer of wind energy, the man who built the first commercial wind farm in Minnesota. A renowned national expert, he runs DanMar & Associates, a company that consults on matters of renewable energy and conservation, especially wind power.

Shivering, I stepped inside the firm’s cozy office and immediately revealed myself as an out-of-towner. “Gee,” I said, “it sure is windy.”
The secretary laughed, her hairdo surprisingly unmussed. “Everybody says that. Today isn’t even that windy.”

At the moment, it turned out, Juhl was busy talking with a group from another blustery plains state, Nebraska. So Juhl’s twenty-six-year-old son, Tyler, offered to show me around. Tyler is tall and athletic, dressed in jeans and a quilted winter jacket. We walked through the shop, stepping over a pair of giant blades on the cement floor, ready to be installed. That job would likely fall to Tyler, who helps set up new wind turbines. “We do more in the summer,” he said. “Last summer I put up a hundred.”

We got into Tyler’s truck and started driving. Aside from the modest, peaked-roofed building that houses DanMar & Associates, there was not much to see in any direction except endless corn fields and seventeen tall, sleek, wind turbines.

Dan Juhl’s wind farm, one of several in the Buffalo Ridge area, is located near Woodstock, on the edge of a zone often referred to as “the Saudi Arabia of wind energy.” The wind here blows in all directions, at most times of the day and night, at an average speed of fifteen miles per hour. There are no obstacles—not a single hill, let alone a mountain—to keep it from spinning those propellers. “There’s nothing out here,” said Tyler. “If I didn’t have this job, there’s no way I’d live here.” As it is, he resides about fifteen minutes from the office, in Pipestone, a bit livelier town than Woodstock, perhaps. Tyler wistfully recalled how he almost got to live in the Virgin Islands. His dad was there, experimenting with solar power. And then, bang, just before the family moved out to join him, Hurricane Hugo hit. “Can you imagine?” he asked. “The Virgin Islands.” He looked across the empty frozen fields of Buffalo Ridge and shook his head.

The winds are better—more forceful and consistent—in North and South Dakota than in Minnesota, the leading wind power producer in the region. But the Dakotas don’t have the wiring and other infrastructure necessary to send power anywhere. The lines that do exist are decades old and were designed to bring small amounts of energy in. New power lines are expensive, about a million dollars per mile.

Buffalo Ridge has similar infrastructure issues, though not as severe, and hopefully now quite temporary. Xcel Energy—which has been both friend and foe when it comes to wind power—has cleared the legal and bureaucratic hurdles necessary to embark upon a $160 million project that will further hook Buffalo Ridge into the larger power grid and potentially carry an additional 825 megawatts of energy to the Twin Cities (one megawatt can power up to three hundred homes at a time). Currently, Minnesota wind plants are capable of producing just over 595 megawatts at any given moment, so the additional power lines will make a huge difference. Around 2.5 percent of the state’s energy comes from wind power.

In the meantime, said Tyler, gesturing to a network of power lines overhead, “All these lines are filled to capacity,” like water pipes that can’t handle another drop. When there’s too much wind, the utility companies have to shut down some of the wind parks—there are almost seven hundred turbines in the state. The producers still get paid, since they typically have a contract with the utility company. “But if you’re an environmentalist, you don’t like to see a hundred turbines shut down on a windy day.”

Tyler drove up to a cluster of turbines, which resembled giant airplane propellers mounted on towers around two hundred feet tall. In an excited gearhead fashion, he began explaining how they work. It’s simple, really: Turbines have sensors that constantly measure the speed and direction of the wind. The entire turbine can rotate depending on where the wind is coming from, and the individual blades also can tilt to maximize efficiency. As the blades spin, a generator harnesses that kinetic energy and converts it to electricity.

Tyler unlocked one of the towers and we climbed through a narrow entryway. We were inside a skinny, vertical tunnel, a giant’s drinking straw. A ladder leads to the top, where the turbine is mounted. Tyler climbs this ladder whenever repairs are needed. In the winter, he said, “the biggest problem is icing.” Ice on the blades adds a lot of weight and drag, making the turbines slower and noisier than usual. Normally, they make only a soft whirring sound. Ice buildup is also dangerous because the turbines have been known to fling chunks of ice hundreds of feet. A buddy of Tyler’s recently had his truck totaled by a block of ice that flew from a turbine. “It was pretty wicked,” Tyler said. Fortunately, nobody was in the truck at the time.

Dan Juhl’s office is housed in a small, one-story building heated by a corn-burning stove and powered independently of the local utility company. When he first built on the property, he was told that he’d have to pay $7,500 for a power line. Juhl more or less told the utility company to go to hell. Instead, he wired the place himself, gathering energy from his wind turbines, along with solar panels. The building is entirely self-sufficient, and Juhl hasn’t paid an electric bill in years.

I asked Tyler how they keep the lights on and the computers running when the wind isn’t blowing. It’s a common question. Xcel spokesman Paul Alderman and others have suggested that the main problem with wind power is that wind is intermittent. “If there’s a demand for electricity and the wind stops blowing,” Alderman said, “we have to fire up other power plants to make up the difference.”

Tyler explained away those concerns. He said that, at least as far as the DanMar office is concerned, there are a pair of batteries that store extra energy. “We can go three days without sun or wind,” he said, pointing out that such a scenario is quite unlikely, that usually there is one or the other, and often both. Theoretically, the same sort of storage technologies could be used on a larger scale to cover cities during calm days. And, besides, what’s so awful about having to power up an existing nuclear or coal plant once in the while, if we get environmentally friendly energy most of the time?

Solar energy could be used to pick up some of the slack as well. And though solar panels are currently quite expensive, Juhl expects that the price will drop as the technology catches on. The same happened with wind power. It used to be pricey to produce. The equipment was expensive to build, the machines were primitive and inefficient, and wind power was being utilized on too small a scale to be cost-effective. But now, the cost is comparable to that of producing more traditional forms of energy, like coal.

Wind power has become such a moneymaker, in fact, that out-of-state companies are moving in and now own about ninety percent of the wind production facilities in Minnesota. Until recently, the biggest holder was Enron, but as that company self-destructed, General Electric bought out all its wind farms, including those on Buffalo Ridge.

In the early nineties, those companies began paying farmers for the right to build and operate wind turbines scattered about on small sections of their farms—up to two thousand dollars per year per turbine. The farmers, struggling merely to stay alive, were thrilled. Many of them made more per year on these wind deals than they did from their crops. Nobody knew then how profitable wind energy, which big power companies are obligated to purchase, would become. Now many farmers are hoping to finance their own turbines.

They are a market Dan Juhl hopes to serve. His company is now focused on helping local owners set up personal wind farms. That’s not to say that Juhl isn’t friendly with larger corporations, too. His goal is to promote renewable energy in whatever manner he can, and to ensure that it is widely available as soon as possible, especially as global oil reserves run dry.

Dan Juhl, a native Minnesotan, got renewable energy fever in the late seventies, after a global oil crisis left people waiting in line for hours to get gas. “I actually started just after Tyler was born,” he told me, in his naturally low-key manner. “It might have been a subconscious thing, just the thought that there has to be something better than this, there has to be a better way than the way we’re doing things.” He worked with others in the industry to design and build some of the first wind turbines. At the time, he says, “They seemed gigantic. By today’s standards, of course, they were very small.”

He got all the usual flack. People—friends, politicians, potential financial backers—thought he was out of his mind. He said it was that sort of skepticism that doomed North Dakota, for example, which could have been a wind power leader. “For years they pooh-poohed the idea of wind power, because of the politics of the coal companies,” he said. “And now they’re crying.” With Minnesota so far ahead, largely thanks to Juhl, he doesn’t see much chance of North or South Dakota ever catching up. Since Minnesota has the potential to generate seventeen times more power from wind than we would ever likely consume, it’s improbable that major urban areas like the Twin Cities or Chicago would turn to the lagging Dakotas to meet their wind energy needs.

Of course, Minnesota is far from tapping its full potential. It is, however, making good headway. The state is the third largest wind-power producer in the nation, after California and Texas. “Environmentalists would like to see it all done at once,” said Juhl. “I’m more practical. Do it slowly; make sure it’s done right.”

Juhl knows what he’s talking about. He’s seen plenty of examples of blocked efforts, screw-ups, and stupidity. During the wind craze of the early 1980s, he briefly lived in California. Wind production at the time cost around thirty-eight cents per kilowatt-hour—more than thirteen times what it costs now, and quite a bit more than it cost then to produce a kilowatt-hour by more traditional means. But the government was trying to be progressive, so it subsidized wind power with huge tax breaks. Unfortunately, the breaks were based on how much an investor spent, rather than how much energy was produced, so building the most efficient systems was not the priority. There were also environmental problems. For example, many turbines were placed along migratory paths, and birds were being chopped to pieces by the machines’ blades.

In 1986, the investment tax credits program expired, so California investors dropped wind power and moved on to the next fad.
By that time, Northern States Power Company, now Xcel Energy, was running three tiny turbines in Minnesota, on Buffalo Ridge. The turbines were a fraction of the size of the latest models and could kick out a maximum of only sixty-five kilowatts each (today’s turbines produce about twenty-five times that). NSP also participated in an early government study that pinpointed Buffalo Ridge as Minnesota’s prime spot for wind energy.

Though NSP showed early interest in wind power, the company ultimately opted to play it safe. “It’s quite easy to throw vast sums of money at high-visibility, high-glitz programs that merely make rates go higher and higher,” a company spokesman told the Star Tribune in 1992. “We don’t want to be leading-edge on some of these, but we don’t want to be left behind, either.”

Where NSP saw hassle, Dan Juhl saw potential and moved back to Minnesota in the late 1980s. In 1992, he constructed the state’s first commercial wind farm, setting up five turbines outside Marshall. The local city government agreed to buy the energy. The power still cost two to three times what it does today, but, as Juhl explained, “Cost-effective can mean different things. Some people spend thirty thousand dollars on a boat and a motor they use twice a year. Or twenty thousand dollars on a diamond.” Wind power was something Juhl believed in, and unlike NSP, he was confident that it would soon be profitable.

NSP quickly jumped back into the game, but some would say for the wrong reasons. In 1994, the company used wind power as a bargaining chip in an attempt to convince the Legislature to allow it to store nuclear waste in outdoor casks at its Prairie Island nuclear power plant near Hastings. A contentious, high-profile political battle ensued, the utility company on one side and environmentalists and American Indians living near Prairie Island on the other.

In the end, the Legislature granted NSP the right to fill up to seventeen casks. But for every cask of waste, NSP would have to donate half a million dollars a year to a renewable energy development fund—meaning that by the time all seventeen were full, the company would be paying $8.5 million per year. On top of that, NSP was required to generate a minimum of 425 megawatts of wind energy at any given time by the end of 2002. The Legislature also said that if by 2002 the Public Utilities Commission, the federal agency that oversees the nation’s power supply, had determined wind power to be a cost-effective source of energy, NSP would have to increase its wind energy capacity by four hundred megawatts by 2012. Finally, NSP officials had to promise never to ask permission to store more nuclear waste—a promise they would break in 2003.

As far as wind energy was concerned, the deal worked wonders. Minnesota became the national leader in new wind tower installations. As people experimented and learned the finer points, the technology improved, and the cost of producing power declined dramatically. Wind farms proved to be an economic boon to the rural communities that hosted them, creating construction jobs, filling bars and hotels with out-of-town contractors, and even drawing a small trickle of curious onlookers.

Wind energy’s biggest problem to date is how to transport the power from where it’s produced to where it’s needed. Thanks to shortsightedness or carelessness or even defiance, the necessary wiring wasn’t being constructed along with the towers. “NSP should have known,” said Juhl. “They were putting out these contracts to satisfy the Prairie Island agreement. I’m not sure if they didn’t think it would be as successful or what, but for whatever reason, ten years later they don’t have a way to get the power out of here.” Xcel plans to start construction this year on new power lines out of Buffalo Ridge. This is promising, but the lines should have been built years ago.

One can’t help feeling the company is a chronic foot-dragger on innovation in the area of renewable energy. For instance, in 1999, when the PUC finally declared wind energy cost-effective, meaning that NSP would have to increase its investment in this energy source, Jim Alders, the company’s manager of regulatory projects, called the decision “a mistake.” Still, activists like Michael Noble, the executive director of Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy, admit the company has made progress—but only because it had to, when the state took the company by the collar. “They keep proving they need to be pushed along step by step,” Noble said. Since wind energy has now become cost-effective, he said he feels as though he’s battling inertia. “Sometimes it seems like it just comes down to old-time utility culture, like, ‘We burn stuff for a living, and what are we going to burn next?’”

Noble lamented that “Denmark today gets twenty percent of their total energy from wind power. It’s much, much windier here, and wind power is much more cost effective here. But they have public policy that nurtures it along, and we have roadblocks.”

Juhl is more optimistic, as inventors so often are, as they have to be in order to envision bold solutions. Things could be better, sure. But “Minnesota is doing well,” he told me. “We’re developing our own resources and keeping a lot of those development dollars within the state.”

And lawmakers may give renewables another boost: In March, two DFL legislators proposed a bill that would require the state to get twenty percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Wind power eventually will be a necessity, said Juhl. “More and more utilities are switching to natural gas. Well, the experts say that will run out in twenty to thirty years, and what then?” That, according to Juhl, is when renewable energy will take over.

“We only have ‘cheap’ energy because we’re not putting the real cost on the table,” he said. “Everybody says coal is so cheap, but you look at the smog, the acid rain, the lung disease, and global climate change—put a value on that. We don’t put that in the electric bill. If we did, if we put the real price of energy on the table, renewable energy would be hands-down the winner.”