Biggest Opportunity for Rural Economic Development since Invention of the Tractor

Pipestone County Line

Minnesota Business August 2009 edition has a glowing profile of one of Southwest Minnesota’s success stories, energy entrepreneur Dan Juhlof Pipestone County.  Last spring I wrote aboutJuhl’s panel discussion on distributed power systems at the Worthington BioScience Conference.  This article, titled “Winds of Change”, tells the story of how Juhl got into the business of wind energy conversion systems, and some of what renewable energy is doing for rural communities.

After passing mile after mile of verdant fields and family farms that take on a certain sameness, the horizon is suddenly interrupted by a different view; dozens of wind turbines of varying sizes lining a ridge, some as tall as 40 stories, but all steadily spinning as the wind turns the blades, which spin a shaft, which connects to a generator and makes electricity. In fact, in just three counties alone—Pipestone, Lincoln and Murray—some 1,200 machines generate 1,000 megawatts, or about $100 million worth of electricity every year.

“This is the biggest opportunity for rural economic development since the invention of the tractor.”

Living and working among the wind farms as I do, sometimes I forget that the return on investment from renewable energy is not universally accepted as positive.  We still have alot of work to do to convince policy makers of what might seem obvious to those of us who live with wind day in and day out.

“This isn’t just about energy and the environment, it’s also about the economy. Wind represents a huge opportunity as an economic development tool and it could literally save some of these small, agriculture-based communities that have been steadily dying. It’s completely in the hands of the utilities…  We’ve been trying to get the legislature involved in understanding it. Politics is energy and energy is politics and it can get kind of ugly.”

Texas is the top wind-producing state in the U.S., according to statistics in the article, with Iowa #2, California #3, and Minnesota #4.  Minnesota has the highest percentage of electricity generated by wind, at 7.5%, and Iowa a close second at 7.1%.  The article doesn’t source these statistics, but they say that wind at $2.5 million per megawatt has the lowest installed cost for electricity production of any source other than natural gas.

I don’t deny that improvement can’t be made in the economics and technology of wind power conversion.  And the large industrial scale operations can have serious negative effects on the amenity values of our rural countryside.  The thing is, there’s only so much oil in the ground.  There’s only so much natural gas, or coal.  All of those things will one day go away, or become so dear that we cannot bear the price.  Wind is different.  Wind we have plenty of and it’s unlikely to go anywhere any time soon.  So fire up the rural development tractor and let’s farm some wind.


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