Farmers on the Cutting Edge of Energy

A giant crane lifts a turbine into place in the second phase of the wind farm development.

The college even has its own working turbine. It's not just used for instruction but actually generates power that is sold to the local community, providing about $150,000 a year to the school.

Opportunity Knocks

For the farmers of Trimont, the perfect opportunity presented itself in the spring of 2003. Great River Energy, a regional power cooperative, was looking for somebody to generate renewable energy for its customers.

Scholl managed to organize 50 different farmers to join the project; and submitted a bid to the power company. They were one of 65 proposals but ultimately won because of the site's location and the local involvement. (Scholl has since died in a small-plane crash.)

"At first, the idea was, hey, this is going to be the largest land-owner wind farm in the country. Until you know the facts, it's easy to dream big," Von Ohlen said.

After they were awarded the project, the farmers realized that they wouldn't be able to take advantage of a substantial federal income tax credit associated with wind power. They simply didn't earn enough money. There were also major financial risks associated with the project. If a gear box went out or a blade broke, the farmers would be responsible for paying for its repair.

Neal Von Ohlen, a farmer who helped start the project, at his farm.

So they decided to bring in a large company to operate the facility. But because the farmers had won the right to sell the renewable energy, they held all the cards when negotiating.

"We had a lot of negotiating power in the first proposal," Von Ohlen said. "We could have brought in anybody."

The group eventually choose PPM Energy, which has since become part of Iberdrola Renewables, a Spanish company that is the world's largest provider of wind power.

As part of its deal with the energy company, the farmers got a noncompetitive clause. Neither group could develop a wind farm in the area without the other. Today they are preparing to go online with their second joint venture adjacent to the first project. And like the first one, the farmers will also get a share of the profits.

While there are 50 landowners in the first group, only 43 have turbines on their property. They can still plant crops right up to the base of the tower.

A view of the Trimont farm from inside one of the turbine towers.

The layout of the turbines -- over the 8,970 acres -- is based on a number of factors. Wind strength and consistency is key. But there are also a number of regulations about how far away a turbine can be from roads, homes and other structures. They also need to be a certain distance setback from other landowners who aren't participating in the project.

In a traditional windfarm development, only the farmer with the turbine would get money through the tower lease payments. But Von Ohlen and the other farmers wanted their project to be different. The farmers with the turbines are still the only ones to get lease payments. But everybody who bought into the original project gets a share of the revenues based on how many acres they own.

The theory, by joining the project, you allow more turbines to be built, and you should still be compensated for that. Again, the farmers banded together to benefit all of them, instead of letting the power company decide -- through tower placement -- who benefits and who doesn't.

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