Range college plans renewable energy program

Steady winds sweeping from the North Shore to the Iron Range are raising hopes that more renewable energy could flow out of Northeastern Minnesota -- and one local college would like to train the workers to build it.

Wind turbines
If tax breaks are granted, the company could break ground by July 1, said Rep. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth. (File / News Tribune)

Steady winds sweeping from the North Shore to the Iron Range are raising hopes that more renewable energy could flow out of Northeastern Minnesota -- and one local college would like to train the workers to build it.

The Mesabi Range Community and Technical College has taken its first steps toward becoming a "renewable energy training center," said Provost Tina Royer, with wind energy training as a centerpiece.

The college is running with State. Rep. Tom Rukavina's challenge to train workers for the renewable energy industry, and to develop the industry locally, Royer said. Rukavina secured state money to help three state colleges, including Mesabi, work together to develop such a program.

The college is hosting a free community seminar on Saturday to talk about the industry today and to gauge community interest for working with renewable energy.

Royer said she's already been surprised -- and pleased -- at the response to the college's first class targeted toward renewable energy. "Fundamentals of Wind Energy," offered online through the Minnesota West Community and Technical College system, attracted 16 students. Royer envisions a training center for technicians and managers in renewable energy at her own campus one day.


"We have quite an ambitious vision for this program," she said. "Right now we're at the ground floor."

Northeastern Minnesota's first large-scale wind energy project finally may be fully operational today, after the last of nine repaired rotors were lifted into place at 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, said Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy Rutledge.

The Taconite Ridge project, 10 turbines capable of producing up to 2.5 mega-watts of wind energy, officially came online in June. Power production from the site just north of Virginia soon was interrupted after defects in several of the 153-foot-long turbine blades were found, and the rotors were taken down for repair.

The company continues to monitor potential wind energy sites on the Iron Range for possible future development, Rutledge said.

The Mountain Iron Economic Development Authority also is considering an ambitious project to develop a commercial wind farm far outside the city's borders.

The development authority already has a history of pushing renewable energy projects, such as the proposed redevelopment of a 40-acre dump site into a plant that would manufacture biomass pellets, consultant Gary Cerkvenik said. The wind energy project has been in the works for about three years.

The project is possible after changes to Minnesota's Community-Based Energy Development, or C-BED, legislation passed in 2007. The bill gave individual governing bodies, such as school districts and economic development authorities, the right to own renewable energy projects, Cerkvenik said.

The development authority is eyeing a wooded site near Biwabik for the six- to eight-turbine project, and is working to secure leases for a mixture of state and county tax-forfeited land. The St. Louis County Board is expected to consider granting a $2,500 annual lease for 500 acres of state tax-forfeited land on the site at its next meeting.


The agency has a 180-foot-tall monitoring tower at the site, which has been taking a wind reading every 10 minutes since May, Cerkvenik said.

"Our data has indicated sufficient wind to support a [wind farm] project," Cerkvenik said, though a final decision on whether to move forward probably wouldn't come until 2010.

The city of Silver Bay also is taking its first steps towards developing a renewable energy infrastructure to power the city's existing industrial park. That could include a mix of wind, solar, biomass, waste heat recovery, or even algae growth to generate biodiesel fuel, City Administrator Lana Fralich said.

"Our goal is to have a self-sustaining park," Fralich said. The city has applied for a $50,000 grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to start researching the issue. Additional funding to study the area's wind and solar resources could come from Minnesota Sea Grant, she said.

"It's not going to happen overnight," Fralich said. "But we want to see growth, and this seems to be the next wave of the future."

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