Powered by the Wind

Minnesota ranks seventh in the country for wind energy generation, which in 2020 accounted for 22 percent of the state’s total energy generation.

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Lisa Daniels near wind turbines and solar panels at Carleton College in Northfield. Photo Sarah Whiting

Minnesota is known for its 10,000 lakes, but the state is rich in another natural resource: wind. And if Lisa Daniels, executive director and founder of Windustry, has her way, you will soon be using its energy to power your life. Daniels founded the informational nonprofit in 1997, making her one of the early advocates of wind energy in Minnesota. “I could not figure out why in Minnesota we were importing coal from North Dakota or Wyoming or wherever — why would we import coal when we had such a good wind resource readily available in our state?” she says.

As Daniels learned more about the energy system and the utilities, she realized that they did not “make sense on so many levels.” Coal has been the fuel of choice in the United States due to the utility business model, which is focused on building large, central power plants that rely on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas rather than renewable energy. Yet only 30 percent of the energy produced in a coal-fired power plant actually gets to the customer because of losses and inefficiencies in the process.

An Untapped Resource

In its early years, Windustry began hosting face-to-face meetings and town hall gatherings in rural Minnesota with guest speakers, as well as regional and national conferences.

“It was really important to us to make the information as accessible as possible to the people — to rural landowners, to farmers, to ranchers, to rural communities — because this is where the wind resource exists,” Daniels says.

Windustry also launched a helpline and a website with a Community Wind Toolbox — an online handbook that helps people develop commercial-scale wind projects on their land or in their communities.

Reaching people on an individual level was paramount to spreading the gospel about wind energy. “Wind projects are hard to put in place,” Daniels says. “No matter where there is a wind project, there had to be a local champion to really get that wind project up and running.”


A National Leader

Minnesota has been a leader in community wind energy development, meaning that there are high levels of local ownership, involvement, and investment in locally initiated wind projects. According to the Clean Grid Alliance, Minnesota ranks seventh in the country for wind energy generation, which in 2020 accounted for 22 percent of the state’s total energy generation. Wind power is the largest renewable energy source in Minnesota, beating solar and hydroelectric by a wide margin. But stellar wind resources are no good without policies to support wind energy. “Wherever there is good wind development and solar development, it is because of the public policy to support it,” Daniels says.

Clean energy advocates are well organized in Minnesota. State mandates — like one requiring Xcel Energy to create 400 megawatts of wind energy if it was in the public interest — have helped increase the growth of the technology.

Not everyone is on board with wind energy, however. There has been pushback, especially in the earliest years of development. Opponents argued that the grid system was not set up to handle on-again, off-again power being developed in a concentrated area, such as 100 wind turbines in small- town Minnesota. Over the years, the technology has changed, and the grid system has expanded, been upgraded, and then been reinforced to accommodate wind energy. “Systems are in place now to handle it better than ever before,” Daniels says.

Another bygone drawback of wind energy was that it used to be very expensive. Now both wind and solar are economical — more so than coal, according to a 2020 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency. Yet contracts with coal producers keep getting renewed.

“It takes huge amounts of public policy to get them to change their business model even though they are a regulated monopoly,” Daniels says of the utilities.


Winds of Change

Windustry’s busiest years were between the late 1990s and 2015. The nonprofit is now less focused on town halls and conferences and more invested in working with communities on distributed generation. This involves small and single clusters of commercial scale wind turbines that can be handled on the local electrical grid or a slightly upgraded electrical grid. It is a model that serves communities better, especially Indigenous communities.

One wind project Windustry holds up as exemplary is that of the Lake Region Rural Electric Cooperative near Pelican Rapids. One of the few hybrid projects in the country, it is a commercial-scale General Electric wind turbine that has a solar field connected to it. The all-in-one control system delivers wind- and solar-generated power seamlessly.

This type of renewable energy setup “could be deployed in quite a few more places in outstate Minnesota if the politics would get out of the way,” Daniels says. “Those coal-burning power plants and the business models of the G&T [generation and transmission] co-ops that own those coal-burning power plants are holding us back.”

Daniels is not giving up on her mission to educate individuals and communities about wind energy. “This has been my journey for the last 25 years,” she says. “Why wouldn’t we use renewable energy available in our own backyard before we use fossil fuel that you have to dig out of the ground?”


LEGACY : Action Steps, Then and Now

Lisa Daniels wrote an essay for us in 2016 about her mission. Here are excerpts of what she was asking for five years ago.

I grew up the only girl with four brothers, and then in middle school our family expanded and I got three stepbrothers and a stepsister. I was used to being around guys. Energy systems traditionally have been and still are mostly engineered, designed, operated and regulated by guys. But this dynamic is shifting as more women enter science, technology and engineering fields.

In 2005, some colleagues and I started Women of Wind Energy (WoWE) to encourage and celebrate women’s voices and leadership in the wind and renewable energy industry. We now have 33 chapters in 25 states.

If women understood their ability to change the power of their communities and homes to efficient clean energy, it would tip the scales in our country’s energy consumption.

The energy economy is ripe for more involvement of women. This is how we live, raise our families, and power our homes and businesses. You don’t have to be an engineer or an energy expert. Women have influence as they embrace their earning power and make more of the purchasing decisions about the home as well as their businesses.

As a society, we have the know-how for efficiencies and technologies far greater than are being presented in the market. I am not talking about making sacrifices or doing without. I am talking about better living, consuming less, wasting less and redesigning systems to allow for local clean energy. Data from the World Energy Council show that the average American home uses two times the electricity of an average European home.

It will take all of us to bring about a cleaner energy system that is more sustainable, equitable and just.

  • Here are some things you can do to make a difference:
  • Get involved in your local community efforts for more sustainable and resilient essential services such as LED street lighting; renewable energy to power schools, water and waste water; or redesign streets for walking and bicycling.
  • Ask elected officials and candidates what they are doing to develop sustainable and resilient communities and expect good and intelligent answers.
  • Walk, bicycle or ride the bus or light rail. No one is saying give up the car. Just figure out how to get out of it some of the time.
  • Choose to buy renewable power as part of your home utility bills.
  • Seek out the most energy-efficient appliances and lighting. It’s easy to get the information online in advance.
  • Buy electric or hybrid cars – then buy the cleanest electricity you can.
  • Start a contest for six months or a year with households in your school, church, neighborhood or town to see who can use the least amount of energy. This is a learning exercise for the whole community.