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Harvesting the wind

(Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Ryan McGaughey, Worthington Daily Globe (Minnesota): BREWSTER -- Out in the middle of 320 acres of Jackson County farmland, the wind has been known to blow with a fury.

That's music to the ears of brothers Steve and Dave Christoffer and their cousin, Byron, who recently erected six wind turbines on their land. The Christoffers, thanks to the help of Woodstock's Dan Juhl and his company, DanMar & Associates, are confident their investment will pay significant long-term dividends.

The origin of the Christoffers' venture into wind energy actually dates back to a project Dave Christoffer initiated a few years back.

"I put up a 39-kilowatt generator," Dave recalled, adding that the turbine is located near Spafford. "The excess electricity gets sold to Federated, while I use the bulk of it for my own farm."

Dave attended a seminar in Winthrop where he heard comments concerning wind energy and started to think on a broader scale. Eventually, he and his brother and cousin sat down to discuss what would ultimately become a project comprised of six, 950-kilowatt turbines.

"That was when we decided to get Dan Juhl involved," Byron said. "Dan's the man. He's for the small farmer and with out him, there's no way we could have got these turbines put up."

During the initial planning for the project, the Christoffers were assisted in determining just how much wind they should attempt to harness for power.

"There are state regulations on how big a turbine you can have and still get the incentive payment," Byron said.

"We needed a substation to connect to the transmission line," Dave added. "To do that, we needed more than a couple of generators. To make that feasible, we decided to go with six, rather than just one or two."

Three of the turbines sit on farm land owned by Dave; the other three are on Steve's property. Byron rents land from each of the brothers.

"We all thought it would be a good longterm investment," Byron said. "We don't generate the electricity for our farm. We sell it to Great River Energy."

"We got a 15-year contract with Great River," Steve added. "It's actually a power purchase agreement … we were up and running in December. We had everything stacked by Kas Brothers, a company from Pipestone."

A loan and equity partner had to be secured in order to obtain federal tax credits for wind energy, Byron said. Federal -- as well as state -- credits are awarded for every kilowatt of energy generated.

With a cost of about $1.3 million per generator, the Christoffers wound up with a 10-year loan of $7.8 million. The trio expects the loan to be paid back on time.

"Federal tax credits and State of Minnesota incentive payments all expire in 10 years," Steve said. "It will be cash flow after 10 years (from the purchase agreements) once the turbines are paid for.

Byron noted the six turbines generate a combined 22 million kilowatts of energy per year. Based on the 22,000 kilowatts Steve uses annually to power his farm, the six turbines could potentially provide power to more than 900 farms.

Suzlon Co., the manufacturer of the turbines, has a maintenance office in Pipestone that makes trips to the Christoffers' land, Byron explained. All three plan to learn how to maintain the turbines themselves, so they can perform routine work such as greasing them every three months and changing oil in the gear boxes.

The Christoffers' turbines are the first in Jackson County , and it appears likely they could be the last for a while.

"In this area, the state incentive is full, so there's none (credits) available," Steve said. "The federal energy bill also hasn't been passed yet, so there are no federal tax credits. We couldn't do this project right now."

"Since we got in there, Great River decided to lower their rate per kilowatt hour," Byron added. Still, the Christoffers can't help but be wind power advocates. As corn and soybean farmers, wind will eventually result in additional revenue for them.

"Any profits from these turbines wind up staying in the local community," Steve said.

"When a farmer invests in these, the dollars stay local, and when big power companies invest in turbines, money goes somewhere else," Byron continued. "It's a proven fact that ninety-five percent of the dollars leave the area when you have a larger company involved."

Not just anybody can put up a wind farm, Byron pointed out. There needs to be access to a transmission line, and smaller lines that Federated runs throughout the county can't hook up very easily to the turbines. But if state incentives and federal tax credits return, the Christoffers -- whose property achieved Century Farm status in 2000 -- believe wind energy can be a big plus for farmers.

We'd encourage farmers to look into it," Dave said. "There's another nice thing:you're not putting mercury into lakes like the coal generators."