Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly referred to Willmar Municipal Utilities as a cooperative.

Transforming Clean-Energy Industry Into a Local One

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

WILLMAR, Minn. -- From his desk at the local electricity cooperative, Bruce Gomm can see the looming black smokestacks of the city's aging coal-fired power plant. He can also see, on his office wall, framed photographs of sleek new wind turbines. Together, they are a changing world foretold.

Gomm is placing a major bet on wind to produce the electrons that will power his customers' lights and run their dishwashers. He is at the forefront of a movement called community power, the idea that neighborhoods and towns can install their own renewable power sources and rely less on electricity that flows from distant realms.

As costs of solar and wind come down, the concept's popularity is looking up, though challenges remain for an industry in its infancy.

Willmar Municipal Utilities invested nearly $10 million in a pair of 256-foot towers to capture the prairie wind here, about 100 miles west of Minneapolis. Gomm calculates that the wind power will cost less than the equivalent in coal-powered energy and, when the debt has been paid in 12 years or so, the electricity will come virtually free for as long as the turbines are standing.

Along the way, Willmar will have reduced carbon emissions and made progress toward reaching a state requirement that Minnesota generate 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025. Gomm, who estimates the turbines will produce 3 to 5 percent of the town's energy, aims to build more.

"This is the biggest investment Willmar Municipal Utilities has ever made," engineer Wes Hompe said, standing beneath a huge new turbine outside town. "What makes it worthwhile? This is the future."

Although most analysts consider it unlikely that neighborhoods or towns will one day exist entirely off the grid, believers in small-scale power see a growing role for local renewables, ranging from individual windmills and solar panels atop homes and big-box stores to larger clusters of turbines and panels wherever they will fit. In Rock Port, Mo., spinning turbines already are producing more than 100 percent of the town's annual energy requirements.

While Rock Port, and the state of Minnesota, are focused on wind, other states and communities are emphasizing solar. The technology is more compact and less obtrusive, especially in urban and suburban areas. California is spending millions on a "Million Solar Roofs" project to help property owners install solar arrays, while Gainesville, Fla., and several states are experimenting with special tariffs and incentives to promote solar.

Federal authorities are investing billions through grants and tax breaks to promote alternative power. President Obama predicted this year that renewable fuel capacity will double in "the next few years."

Amory B. Lovins, a Colorado-based renewable power advocate, refers to the transformation of the energy industry as "reinventing fire" and contends the wind, solar and hydropower industries have gone from alternative to mainstream. He cites figures from London-based New Energy Finance to estimate that they represent "probably half of all new electricity. Renewables are getting less expensive, often rather dramatically."

Within the renewables world, Lovins suspects economics will increasingly favor small and medium-sized projects in place of vast wind and solar farms located on remote mountain ridges or desert floors far from population centers. Transmission is costly and, as utilities across the country have learned, the routing of new power lines often generates opposition and lawsuits.

David W. Mohler, a Duke Energy strategist, sees both the promise and limits of community power. He predicts local energy sources, sometimes called distributed generation, will be a "small but meaningful part" of the nation's energy portfolio. His North Carolina home is equipped with solar panels and a storage battery, he said, but "it's really tough to think about thousands and thousands of megawatts. It's like thinking about using AAA batteries for your car."

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