Dust in the Wind

Christopher Henderson

ONE OF MINNESOTA'S largest electrical co-ops, the Eden Prairie-based Co-operative Power, last spring began offering its consumers a choice of where their electricity comes from. Under the co-op's Wellspring program, customers can buy 100-kilowatt-hour blocks of wind-generated electricity. If enough sign up, Co-operative Power, an electrical distribution co-op for 17 retail electric co-ops in rural Minnesota and Twin Cities suburbs, will erect wind generators in southwestern Minnesota.

Local environmentalists, however, are decidedly ambivalent about Wellspring. The hitch is that the subscription price for each kilowatt hour of electricity has a $2 premium tagged to it. (That's down from earlier estimates of $4 per kwh, making Co-operative Power the lowest-priced program of its kind in the country.)

"It's been a very troubling issue for us because we love the idea that a cooperative utility--the first one in the country--would come forward voluntarily and offer to build wind energy," says J. Drake Hamilton of Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy (ME-3), a coalition of 15 area environmental groups. "But this is boutique pricing of wind energy." By law, NSP must build a certain amount of wind capacity. But since it's selling its green power to other electric companies, they may be discouraged from developing their own clean-energy sources.

Hamilton is among those who have simultaneously supported and criticized Co-operative Power's efforts. Nobody is questioning that wind-generated electricity is at least a wee bit more expensive than coal or nuclear. But rather than having a few well-heeled environmentalists pay upscale prices for wind power, critics insist, Minnesotans should all share the cost of increasing the amount of "clean" electricity produced by wind, solar, and bio-mass. That, they say, will cost each Minnesotan a few monthly cents.

ME-3 and its partners want lawmakers to require that 20 percent of Minnesota's electricity come from green sources by the year 2010. Green pricing, they say, will never get us there. "In places where this has been tried across the country the most you get is between 1 and 2 percent of the residential customers signing up," says Hamilton. "That will never take us to a sustainable energy future."

The percentages aren't in yet, but approximately 1,500 electrical consumers are less ambivalent about green power than the environmentalists. Originally Co-operative Power was cautiously projecting the construction of two 500-megawatt wind generators. "As a result of the price reduction, our subscriptions have doubled," says Wellspring Project Manager Tim Seck. "We're just shy of enough for two generators and a third is a possibility." Even more surprising, Dakota Electric, one of Co-operative Power's suburban members, has a 50-block commitment from an industrial customer, and Seck expects more industrial subscriptions. (It was data from Dakota Electric customers that convinced Co-operative Power to pursue premium-priced wind energy. A survey of Dakota's customers showed that a fairly high percentage of them would pay extra for a green product.)

Some customers may have been scared off by controversy about green pricing, however. In June, a Star Tribune article that quoted some lukewarm ME-3 members suggested that consumers were about to be "greenwashed." Seck and his co-workers fielded hundreds of calls from confused customers. "This isn't greenwashing. We've got support in the environmental community because we utilize new generation [technology]," he says. "We're building new plants so our members can make a difference in the environment."

The entire issue is clouded because United Power Association, another large distribution co-op, is also offering a green pricing scheme. But ME-3's Hamilton sees a greenwash amaking, noting that UPA will buy its wind-generated power from NSP. While UPA says that initially, this will protect its customers, critics contend that it won't help increase the state's renewable energy sources. The Minnesota Legislature required NSP to generate wind electricity as a result of negotiations over storage of nuclear waste at Prairie Island, he explains. Legislators traded dirty storage for clean wind power. "NSP customers will get browner power. They'll have more coal and more nuclear in their mix and won't even know it," says Hamilton. "That's not what the Legislature intended."

Ironically, clarity for confused consumers and ambivalent environmentalists may be just around the corporate corner. Co-operative Power and UPA are talking merger.

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