Minnesota has been a leader in wind energy generation in the United States over the last two decades. Minnesotans adopted the technology relatively early. In 2017 Minnesota produced the 8th-most in the nation in net generation from wind energy. The wind energy industry provides thousands of good jobs to Minnesotans, cheaper electricity to millions of ratepayers, and good value to hosts of wind farms throughout greater Minnesota.
The graph above shows the growth of installed wind generation in Minnesota from 1999 through 2017. Nineteen years ago Minnesota boasted 273.4 megawatts (MW) of installed wind capacity; at the end of 2017, 3,699 MW. In 2016 the state added 291 megawatts—more than the state’s total capacity in 1999. Even though Minnesota wind has grown 4.8% on average over the last 19 years, the state’s share of national installed wind capacity decreased from 11% in 1999 to a little over 4% in 2017 as the Great Plains states to the west and south erected more wind farms.
Geography plays an enormous role in the wind industry. The southwestern portion of Minnesota, which has the best wind resource—the industry term for potential energy—has attracted the most wind development.
The map above shows wind farms across the state, laid over a map of wind potential at 50 meters above ground. Light blue is “Good” by federal Energy Information Agency standards, and light brown is “Fair.” Wind potential is a key metric for wind development, but it varies by height. As the industry has developed, turbines have grown taller—and better able to harvest wind. Compare the two maps below, which show average annual wind speed at 30 meters and 80.
Wind turbines have grown considerably taller since 1999, when Minnesota claimed over a tenth of the nation’s wind capacity.
The map above shows potential for new wind development in Minnesota with massive 140-meter turbines expected to be available in the near-future. The northern parts of the state, shown in darker hues, do not currently host many wind farms, yet hold great potential with this new technology.
As some of the oldest wind projects wind down, developers have begun to replace them with taller, more powerful turbines. A few of Minnesota’s oldest projects have drawn interest to be repowered. Some expect repowering aging projects to be a $25 billion dollar market in the U.S. by 2030—and Minnesotans should expect to reap some of that benefit.
There were 1,966 Minnesota jobs in the wind industry at the end of 2016, according to an annual US Department of Energy (DOE) report—more than coal, nuclear, or any single source of generation outside of solar, even though the state currently has more coal and nuclear capacity than wind. For context the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development reports 10,621 Heavy and Civil Engineering Construction jobs currently in the stat. By the same DOE report, construction jobs feature prominently in the electric generation sector, at 43.5% across all sources of generation; while specific data for wind energy jobs was not available in the report, it is likely a robust share of these are construction jobs, given the steady pace of new turbine construction.
Long-term operations and maintenance jobs have followed in the wake of wind power development, and wind-turbine technician is the fastest-growing job in the country. The median annual pay for that position is $52,260 annually nationwide, and starts at around $40,000 here in Minnesota.
The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) system offers training in these fields. MNSCU students can work toward 1- and 2-year certificates and diplomas for the most affordable tuition in Minnesota. Given the state of the industry, the system should consider expanded offerings.
Wind turbine and related manufacturing facilities dot the state of Minnesota, and bring home some of the benefits of economic development from elsewhere in the country.
Wind outcompetes every other source of electricity on price—even in unsubsidized terms. In the Upper Midwest, wind is the cheapest form of new capacity, with some long-term wholesale contracts at less than 2¢/kWh. Electricity prices in Minnesota have crept up recently, but those increases mostly reflect investments in the grid and in nuclear power, not investments in wind.
Xcel Energy, the largest utility in the state and the utility with the most wind in the nation, received approval last summer from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MNPUC) to purchase 1,550 MW of wind from projects in Minnesota and neighboring states. The MNPUC approves utility projects on a host of factors, but reliability and affordability are paramount. The utility estimates that these projects will contribute $7 million annually in leases, millions annually in property taxes, and up to 1,500 construction jobs through 2020.
Minnesota’s leadership in wind generation over the last twenty years has provided substantial economic benefits. The industry has brought thousands jobs to the state—more per-megawatt than fossil fuels—and cheaper, cleaner electricity to consumers. As the technology and prices get even better, Minnesotans will continue to benefit from the revolution they helped jumpstart.