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Optimism for wind energy plan

Dozens of investors, landowners and community members gathered Wednesday in Atwater for Lake Country Wind Energy, LLC's first annual appreciation dinner. The community-based project aims to have its first windmills erected and spinning by 2012. Tribune photo by Eric Ludy

ATWATER -- A year ago, Steve Bergo and a group of 7 area farmers were talking about wind.

They all agreed that they had a lot of it, and with all the buzz surrounding renewables, they knew that there must be a way to harness it. So, like the pioneers of industry before them, they forged into the unknown on a large scale wind farm project.

"At the start of this thing, we didn't know if anybody was going to follow us into this," he said.

But follow them they did.

Bergo looked out on Wednesday evening at dozens of investors, landowners and community members gathered at the Atwater Community Center, dining on chicken-on-a-stick and hot dish, and all talking about what they hope to be west central Minnesota's next great export: wind.

"To be sitting here with all these people today is very exciting," said Bergo, who chairs Lake Country Wind Energy's advisory board.

They were there for Lake Country Wind Energy LLC's first annual appreciation dinner for community investors in a project set to build enough windmills in Kandiyohi and Meeker counties to power more than 70,000 homes by 2014.

In the year since Lake Country Wind Energy's formation, 22,000 acres of the 30,000 needed for the project have already been leased from area landowners. Dozens of investors from the community have come on board.

There should be windmills spinning in the area by at least 2012, according to Chuck Burdick, the wind developer for National Wind, the project's managing partner. By 2014, he said there should be anywhere from 150 to 220 windmills mainly lining the corridor near U.S. Highway 12 from Grove City to west of Kandiyohi.

The company sees west central Minnesota as the next logical step in wind power development in the state, said Burdick. The area with the highest wind power capacity -- the Buffalo Ridge in southwestern Minnesota -- has already been developed nearly as much as it can be, he said.

"Around here, we're one notch down from there, but still viable," he said.

The west central Minnesota project is just one of a dozen that National Wind is developing throughout the Upper Midwest, said its co-founder, Jack Levi.

The way it works is the same with all of them.

The company puts in the initial capital to get a project going, and then invites community investors to finance the rest. The day-to-day work of the project is managed by National Wind, but developers meet periodically with an advisory council made up of community investors.

All told, community members are the majority stakeholders in the projects, he said.

"We don't go into a project without local support," he said.

Gordy Behm has invested both money and potentially land into the project. He's a retired famer who owns land north of Atwater, and is currently a member of Lake Country Wind Energy's advisory board.

He said there were no guarantees on the level of return in any investment, but that he was confident that this project would be a successful one. More than that, he said, any profits from the venture wouldn't be siphoned off to some distant corporate office.

"The money generated from this is going to stay in the community," he said.

But to get there will take some time.

The process of developing a large-scale wind energy project can take anywhere from two to five years, said Levi. The bulk of that time is spent in securing permits and land in the most productive wind areas. Construction itself usually takes about a year, he said.

But it's all well worth it, he said. He said that with federal and state governments pushing for more renewable sources of energy, the Upper Midwest in particular was poised to capitalize on its wind capacity.

"They have hydraulic power in Colorado, solar out in California and Arizona. Out here in Minnesota, it's pretty good with wind power," he said. "Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas. These four states are going to be major suppliers of wind energy to the rest of the country."