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    Tilting at Wind Energy

    Clean power production in the Great North

    Everyday wind energy grows and expands. Everybody wants in, witness Oklahoma's recent pitch in Europe, but only a few are going to be real players. Right now Texas and Minnesota/South Dakota appear to have to have a head start with two world leading efforts: T. Boone Pickins' giant planned West Texas wind farm - weighing in at 4,000 MW capacity, and the even bigger 5,050MW British Petroleum Titan project in South Dakota.

    I had the opportunity to watch the development of a wind energy industry cluster in Minnesota first hand. Driving back and forth between Minneapolis-Saint Paul, where I lived for many years, and eastern South Dakota, where relatives lived, I saw the emergence of Lake Benton, Minnesota, as the "Original Wind Power Capital of the Midwest." (CNN did a story on Lake Benton and midwest wind energy efforts back in 2000.)

    Starting with a few multi-story wind turbines on farmland in the 1990s, Lake Benton plans to have 200 such wind mills working when all is said and done. The area around Lake Benton, pop. 700, is called Buffalo Ridge and is mostly farmland. What makes wind energy popular among the locals, primarily farmers, is that by giving over a small fraction of their land to wind harvesting, they can generate about $2,000 per wind mill. (Sidenote: Interestingly, John Deere set up a wind power division recently.)

    Lake Benton was one of the first areas in Minnesota to get wind energy fever. And big visions have emerged since. The North Star state wants to become a net exporter of wind-derived electricity by 2030. The state look to rally efforts to become the "Saudi Arabia" of wind energy. It even had a trade group called Energy Alley. (Energy Alley has since been aborbed into a larger initiative called the Minnesota Environmental Initiative.) The name of this group harkened back to Medical Alley, the association for Minnesota's most successful industry cluster--medical devices. (Medical Alley has since changed its name to LifeScience Alley, after merging with MNBio, the trades association for local biotech companies.)

    Minnesota, primarily the Twin Cities, has one of the most developed industry clusters in the country, apart from Silicon Valley for information technology and New York for financial services, thanks to major players, like Medtronic, BostonScientific, St. Jude Medical, and Guidant. In fact, Michael Porter, strategy guru from Harvard University, used Minnesota's device cluster as an example when introducing the concept of industry clusters back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Proponents of developing a renewable energy industry in Minnesota, therefore, had an excellent template to follow.

    Although other regions of the country are better known for their connections to energy, primarily Houston, Texas, Minnesota does have some potential. In addition to wind energy in places like Lake Benton, the state's economy is strongly tied to agriculture, especially corn and soy beans. (It's no coincidence that agribusiness giant Cargill, one of the largest privately owned companies in the world is based in a Minneapolis suburb.)

    Corn is useful for providing biomass-based fuels like ethanol, another renewable energy source. Before the recent financial meltdown, over in Western Minnesota and Eastern South Dakota, about an hour from Lake Benton, extensive development was taking place in the ethanol fuel industry via companies like VeraSun Energy and Fagen Inc. Also thanks to a joint venture between Cargill and Dow, biotechnology is being used to create plastic out of corn. (Aside: I own a corn-based plastic blanket, and it works just fine.)

    Another reason renewable energy may succeed in Minnesota, a primarily democrat state, is that politically speaking everybody can get behind clean/green energy. Along those lines, the University of Minnesota has launched the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE) to coordinate research efforts into alternative energy technology. (BTW, I don't know if the allusion to Bob Marley is intentional here, but we are talking about a bunch of university students.)

    Minnesota is hoping that with wind, ethanol, and, possibly, hydrogen technologies, the next big thing for the state, could be the energy that will power America in the future. [P.S. The Economist recently annointed North Dakota (Minnesota's and South Dakota's neighbor) with the appellation of "energy producer."] .:.


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