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Marshall County awaits 'economic boon' of wind farm

Rodney Lieberg (front), Marshall County Commissioner Sharon Bring and Dennis Hjelle at the site of the test tower on Hjelle's land west of Newfolden, Minn. Forum Communications Photo/ John Stennes

NEWFOLDEN, Minn. -- The owner of farmland just east of the Red River Valley, Rodney Liedberg has claimed that he's "15 miles from the good land."

His property may not have the rich soil of the valley, but it has something that likely soon will enrich its value -- healthy winds. He has property on the high sand ridges of the Pembina Trail, where the wind is strong and steady, ripe for wind energy.

His land is in line to be home to a wind farm substation and as many as four wind turbines. The annual payment to landowners for each turbine is $5,000.

The project will have between 43 to 61 turbines, meaning annual payments to landowners would be between $215,000 to $305,000. Wind energy taxes-- 80 percent going to Marshall County and 20 percent to affected townships-- would be between $300,000 and $500,000 annually.

"It's a great economic boon for our county," Marshall County Auditor Scott Peters said. "It would generate some new tax revenue."

An additional benefit would be jobs-- 200 during six months of construction and five to 10 long-term. That would provide a boost fora county that has seen its population steadily erode from more than 19,000 in 1920 to 13,000 in 1980 and to less than 10,000 in the 2010 census.

Utility needed

Only one obstacle-- albeit a big one --remains before construction can start. Needed is a formal agreement with an electric utility to buy the wind-generated power.

"We'll be in position where the project is shovel-ready for construction in May 2012, with its completion before the end of 2012," said Rory Cantwell, project development manager for TCI Renewables' Montreal office.

"If it doesn't happen in 2012, I'm confident it will in the coming years," he said. "There's no major hurdle. It's just the timing of the market."

An agreement seems inevitable, he said, because of the mandate that Minnesota power companies create 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025. The utilities are meeting the current requirement of 10 percent in renewables, but the percentage demand increases as the deadline nears.

Cantwell said TCI has secured the needed land west of Newfolden, south of the Middle River and along the Pembina Trail.

No vocal opponents

Wind farm speculation began four years ago when local landowner Dennis Hjelle responded to a farming magazine ad by developers looking for a test site in the area.

The test tower quickly showed that the wind was sufficient. He will have one or two turbines on his land.

At informational meetings, Hjelle watched locals express concerns about the noise, the view, the setbacks and the potential hindrance on migratory birds and farming practices such as crop spraying.

"But I never heard any big protests or anyone screaming and hollering," he said. "It's new to all of us, so there are a lot of questions. It will cover a lot of people and do the whole area good. But, maybe after we get it, I might be the first to swear at it."

Peters said the county's perspective is to "support this as long as people's concerns are met."

Liedberg said a wind farm in Marshall County wasn't something that ever crossed his mind, so "I won't believe it until it happens.

"This would helpa lot. Like my wife (Eunice) said, it will pay for health insurance."

Diversified income

Sharon Bring, a county commissioner, lives a mile from the main pathway of the turbines, so she didn't land a site.

"But I'm still excited," she said. "It's like diversifying. It's having another income other than just plain farming."

The additional taxes will allow the county to provide more services and/or cut taxes on others.

"But the people most excited about this are township officers," she said. "They'll have really good roads now."

For the last few years, she said, she has fielded phone calls from people "wondering how they can get in on this."

Ryan Bakken is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. The Herald and the Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Co,