Alternative energy: Tipping at windmills

 While Wall Street banking types are out on their butts due to the economy, one green-leaning Minnesota banker is expanding his business and flexing his political beliefs - through wind power.

"Powering the renewal of our communities," is the motto of Prairie Sun Bank, in the tiny town of Milan, Minnesota (Pop.: 326), three hours west of the Twin Cities. Regulations prohibit banks from taking up side businesses, but Prairie Sun Chairman Erik Thompson convinced the Minnesota Commerce Department that a turbine was actually be a marketing expense. Nice work, oh silver-tongued banker.

Thompson wanted to put his turbine on agricultural land in Milan, but he says the city took so long to write a wind ordinance before issuing a permit that he got fed up of waiting, and picked a site about a mile outside the city.

Thompson figured the $90,000 wind power project could be a boon to both his business and his charitable foundation over the 50-year span he expects it to operate. The bank would get advertising, a tax credit for investing in wind power, and, for a few years, a bit of cash - about $250 a month - for selling power onto the grid. The foundation would get the revenue after Thompson turned ownership over from the bank.

Thompson envisioned the project hoping it could be a model for green philanthropy. Rather than give stocks or cash ("Who knows where that will end up?" he snarks), donors could build turbines as a sort of endowment: help save the Earth while providing nonprofits with a continuing source of revenue.

"I strongly believe in wind power," says Thompson. "I'm a fervent opponent of the war and I believe we went to war for oil. So anything I can do to promote changing our mentality away from fossil fuels I am keen to do."

The plan hasn't quite worked out as well as Thompson hoped. Financial incentives aren't yet in place to make the model practical, but with a few changes the banker hopes wind towers will start popping up across the Western half of the state. "Small wind turbines would have benefits not just for climate and substituting fossil fuels," he says, but also economically. "They would employ Minnesota."

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