The Death of a Windmill

Written by Jeff Johnson on October 20, 2010. Posted in General

County Board Votes Unanimously to Kill the Medina Wind Turbine

For about six years the county board has been talking about erecting a wind turbine at the county’s public works property in Medina.  In 2008, the Medina City Council granted the county a revision to its Planned Unit Development permit on that site to erect a wind turbine as long as the county applied for a construction permit by November 18, 2010.

As that deadline was approaching earlier this year, county administration determined that the numbers could not justify the county purchasing, erecting and owning the turbine.  In August 2010, the county issued a request for proposal seeking a private investor to partner with the county on this project.  A private investor would have been able to take advantage of significant federal tax breaks on this project and, therefore, arguably improve the “payback” period for the county’s portion of the project cost.

The resolution before the board yesterday was to continue negotiating with one of the two private companies that responded to the RFP and potentially return to the board with a contract to move forward (prior to Nov. 18).

The initial negotiations with this company (which had never previously been involved with a wind energy project) yeilded an offer that projected a 15-year simple payback for the county’s eventual investment.

All five commissioners present yesterday voted “no” on the resolution, likely killing the wind turbine project.

The prevailing rationale of the board members at the meeting was that there were too many questions about both the private sector partner and the numbers involved in the deal to make a decision before the looming deadline.

My reason for voting “no” was based on a more fundamental question: Why do we feel the county needs to be in the energy-generating business at all?

It’s certainly not because it will allow us to save significant tax dollars.  Even assuming the electricity revenue numbers in the proposal were accurate (and that’s a big assumption for me), it would be 15 years before the county would even recoup its investment.

It’s certainly not because government needs to “set an example” for others to follow regarding wind energy.  Xcel leads the nation in wind energy and has very aggressive plans moving forward.  Our little windmill would not have made an iota of difference to Xcel.  And other private investors?  Private investors will build wind turbines if the economics make sense, not because government has taken the lead.

Some argue that Hennepin County is already in the energy-generating business, as the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (aka “HERC” aka “the garbage burner”) turns waste into energy, some of which Hennepin County sells.  HERC, however, was not built because the county made a decision to get into the energy business.  It was as a response to state and federal mandates regarding the disposal of solid waste.  The production of marketable energy is a positive by-product of that decision.

The board made a good decision yesterday.  The county has plenty on its plate right now – including several things that probably should be removed from its plate.  Taking the leap into the energy-generating business would have been just one more example of a creeping county mission over which we seem to have little control.

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