Farmers on the Cutting Edge of Energy

TRIMONT, Minn. -- One would hardly know it driving down Main Street, but this tiny prairie town surrounded by corn and soybean fields is at the forefront of America's fight to wean itself off oil.

Long before gas topped $4 a gallon or Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens embraced renewable energy, a group of farmers here banded together to build a massive wind farm.

Today their vision is paying off.

At the edge of town, 67 giant turbines -- each taller than the Statue of Liberty -- rise above the landscape, producing enough electricity to power 29,000 homes throughout the state and providing the farmers and local government with roughly $2 million a year. And it's just the beginning. Soon, a second phase of the project will be online -- doubling the number of towers -- and a third phase is already being planned.

So how did this town of only 754 residents, where the local radio station includes the price of cattle and corn in its news updates, land on the forefront of the nation's energy solutions?

Trimont manager Rick Mattioda stands in front of a turbine blade about to be installed.

It was part geography, part luck and part foresight by a few local farmers.

Trimont sits at the southern end of Minnesota, a few miles north of Iowa. The flat land spreads out in every direction, broken occasionally by a farmhouse or grain elevator.

Strong winds pass easily across the prairie, making it an ideal location for commercial-scale, wind-power generation. But strong winds aren't enough.

Trimont, a small town in the heart of the prairie, is home to an annual chocolate festival and a yard-of-the-month contest sponsored by the local chamber of commerce.

The best places to capture a strong and steady wind -- Minnesota, the Dakotas and Iowa -- are far away from the population centers that demand the most electricity. To get power from the Great Plains to, say, Chicago or Denver requires a large network of transmission lines that simply doesn't exist.

Trimont was lucky: It already had one of the power transmission lines running through town.

All that was missing was a vision. And that's where local farmer Doug Scholl came in.

"It was his idea that instead of sitting here waiting for a major wind developer to come to us … to instead take matters into our own hands," said Neal Von Ohlen, a fellow farmer who helped start the project and now oversees the farmers' interests. "I didn't know anything about wind. I was just a landowner-farmer. But it seemed intelligent."

The Growth of Wind

Wind will never be the solution to all our energy problems. Supporters say that in two decades the country could generate at least 20 percent of its electricity with it.

Today, the biggest source of electricity is coal, accounting for nearly half of all power generation in 2006, according to the Department of Energy. Natural gas and nuclear power each accounted for another 20 percent, and hydroelectric another 7 percent. All forms of renewable energy -- that includes wind, solar and biomass -- accounted for just 2 percent of all electricity production. Compare that to Denmark, where wind makes up nearly 20 percent of country's power needs.

Two workers for Iberdrola Renweables stand in front of turbine blades before installation.

Wind is the fastest-growing form of energy. Thanks to projects like the one in Trimont, the amount of wind power in the United States nearly tripled between 2003 and 2007.

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