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Winds of progress for state in new energy

For generations, Minnesota's prairie towns have distinguished them-selves by their skylines: the water tower, church steeples and grain elevator. But in the last decade, new landmarks have been sprouting along the countryside in the form of wind turbines. Some stand alone in a wide open field; others huddle in bunches of 20 or 30.

While they'll never replace the budging silver water containers in the sky or long, slender symbols of faith as enduring icons of life in the Midwest, wind turbines do represent the future of Minnesota's economy.

How much a part of our economy's next generation is what I set out to find. For the past six months, I've been collecting, analyzing and crunching the numbers on the economic benefits of wind energy. If Minnesota makes the right investments and fosters this technology pro-perly, wind could generate 3,000-5,000 jobs and pump $8 billion into the state's econ-omy over the next two decades.

But jobs aren't the only benefit. Minnesota has the opportunity to become an industry leader and a hub for research, development and production of wind techn-ology. As any Minnesotan can tell you, we certainly have enough wind. We also have the manufacturing base, skilled workforce and university and college system in place to capitalize on this renewable energy source.

Armed with this information, I put together a report for Minnesota 2020, "Winds of Progress," and we hit Highway 52 in a triangular tour through Minnesota's prairie to spread the positive news.

Throughout the state, we found generally supportive responses to wind power and its potential to be an economic engine that helps move Minnesota's economy out of this recession, especially for skilled manufacturers, who have seen job loses hit more than 35,000 in the last year.

Modest metal fabricating or welding operations capped many of the towns we passed through on our journey. While most aren't making turbine blades and towers now, many have workers with the transferable know-how and machinery to start producing these components and put some of the laid-off back on the job. In fact, Minnesota ranks in the top third of the nation when it comes to com-panies already operating in fields related to wind compon-ent manufacturing, with more than 400 businesses and 26,000 workers.

Having these companies supply the Minnesota wind industry might produce five jobs in one town, 10 more in the facility down the road and maybe a dozen more in the next county over. While these might sound like only small increments, in places with total populations fewer than 2,000 or 3,000, several jobs means a lot. They pay well and are tough to outsource because these large components are expensive to transport long distances, making them more cost efficient to build near the wind farm. Once the farm is in operation, technicians will have to live nearby also to service them.

The real economic multiplier kicks in when local farmers, business people and folks in town start investing in and owning wind farms. "Winds of Progress" highlights how economic growth from local ownership is three times greater than corporate ownership in wind production. The workers and local owners are much more likely than out-of-state corporate investors to take their families out to dinner in town, buy a new truck from the local Chevy or Ford dealer and pump their revenue and profits back into Main Street business.

Even though we have the ingredients and enthusiasm without the proper recipe from Minnesota policy makers and business leaders, our success in the wind industry isn't guaranteed.

We'll need strong state, local and business partnerships, especially when it comes to combining our existing knowledge base and research with out-of-state developers to ensure there is a home-grown, wind-specific skill set in Minnesota. More investment in research and development also needs to take place.

During our trek we saw two great examples of how state investment in education will help fuel our growth in wind. On Day 1 of the tour, we stopped at Riverland Community College's Albert Lea campus. This fall, the college will start its wind turbine technician class, preparing the skilled workforce Minnesota needs to advance in this industry.

'Continuing through the L, on Day 2, we arrived at the University of Minnesota-Mor-ris with a lot of excitement about its biomass plant and wind turbine. We left convin-ced each are shining exam-ples of how our universities and colleges will help catapult Minnesota to the center of research and development in renewable resources.

Every few years there's a new idea for diversifying and strengthening Minnesota's Main Streets. While wind might not be the magic bullet everywhere, it certainly makes sense for many rural towns to consider harnessing the state's natural resource.

Nathan Paine is an Energy Policy Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a non-partisan, progressive think tank.