Harvesting the windZUMBROTA -- Sitting high up in a combine Thursday afternoon, Chris Kalass looks ahead to the corn swaying in the breeze and sees opportunity.
ZUMBROTA -- Sitting high up in a combine Thursday afternoon, Chris Kalass looks ahead to the corn swaying in the breeze and sees opportunity.
He says the farmer of the future will harvest wind in addition to corn and soybeans.
"It's just an additional piece of the puzzle," he says.
Kalass, who farms 240 acres north of Zumbrota, is one of 215 people to sign on with Goodhue Wind's proposal to build 50, utility-scale wind turbines across central Goodhue County.
The company has spent two years trying to get the project off the ground in the face of stiff opposition from some area residents who say the turbines are sited too close to their rural homes.
Now, with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission set to decide on the fate of the project Oct. 21, proponents are hoping the commission agrees that the $180 million project's boost to the local economy far outweighs any drawbacks.
Deflecting criticism, extolling benefits
As a student of business and environmental sustainability, Goodhue Wind senior wind developer Chuck Burdick never gave much thought to public relations.
"That's not a skill set that I came to this with," he said.
Two years deflecting public criticism of the Goodhue Wind project have made him well acquainted with the field, however.
Burdick, who helps oversee the Goodhue Wind project on behalf of National Wind, the Minneapolis-based company that manages the project, says it is "hard to quantify" the amount of time he has spent attempting to quell concerns over the proposed development.
Nonetheless, the trip down to Goodhue County for public hearings on the issue has become a common one for the Twin Cities native. Opponents of the project often extend those hearings into the early hours of the morning. They say the massive turbines will be noisy, dangerous and unattractive.
Burdick calls facing those criticisms a "unique experience" compared with the company's 14 other ongoing projects, which he says have been met with little controversy and much acclaim.
"Goodhue Wind is the only project that is having the experience we're having with the public reaction," he said.
Burdick says the reaction is all the more puzzling given what he views as an easy sell.
By the company's estimates, the 78-megawatt project will pump $180 million of investment into the county. It will require 100 to 150 workers over six to nine months of construction activity. It will generate tax revenues for the county and townships on the order of $320,000 per year.
For participating landowners, the deal is even sweeter, says Burdick. He estimates that landowners will receive an average of $15,000 annually for every turbine placed on their property.
"That's putting a kid trough college money or having a secure retirement money," he said.
A 'community based model'
Founded in 2003 by Minnesota entrepreneurs Jack Levy and Pat Kalstring, National Wind isn't like other wind development companies, says Burdick.
The company follows a "community-based model" of wind development. For each individual project, it creates a limited liability company made up of local participants, outside investors, and National Wind itself.
It's a simple concept that has proven effective, according to Burdick: The investors supply the capital, the participants supply the land and the developers put it all together.
"It's a matter of time and expertise that National Wind and other development companies bring to the table," he said.
Kenyon-area landowner and Goodhue Wind investor Gary Luebke says National Wind's model works because it allows landowners to benefit from wind development without the need to raise the substantial amounts of capital needed for a viable wind project.
Those attempting to stop the project are impeding the rights of farmers to maximize the income from their land, he said.
"Some may not realize that this is agricultural production zoned land," he said. "Having wind turbines comes with that."
He said someday, for better or worse, wind turbines will be as natural to the rural landscape as windmills once were.
"Sometimes, you've got to progress and stop looking at all the negatives," he said.