There are few issues that I get more questions about than our Infinity Wind Generation Program and other related renewable generation issues. It has been especially common this spring and summer with the high frequency of wind in the area to receive comments about how well the Petersburg or Valley City turbines are doing. I often refer people to the Minnkota web site on the Internet at www.minnkota.com where they can actually view the current performance of these generators.
This past winter, our Statewide Association of Electric Cooperatives conducted an opinion survey of North Dakota residents. Some of the questions in the survey related to the development of wind energy in the state. Those surveyed were asked what level of agreement they had with the statement “North Dakota electric utilities should use wind to generate part of their electricity even if it costs more than coal generation.” Of those surveyed, 34% strongly agreed with the statement, and 38% somewhat agreed.
At first glance, the research indicates the majority of our electric consumers want us to generate power with wind despite the higher cost, which will result in higher electric rates. This may be a true conclusion, but we also know that we have to be a little careful with survey results.
One of the questions that comes up about this particular survey result is whether or not the respondent typically related the higher cost of generation to higher retail electric rates. Sometimes there is the perception that big business, such as electric utilities, can and should absorb higher operating costs for the good of society, and that these costs will not be passed on to the consumer. In reality, if generation with wind costs more than with coal, the added expense will indeed increase the final retail cost of the electricity generated.
When Minnkota Power Cooperative and the 11 distribution cooperatives decided to offer Infinity wind energy, we first surveyed our members to determine what interest existed at the time. In the survey, we asked our members how many would be interested in purchasing wind generated electricity in blocks of 100 kilowatt-hours per month if it costs them more than the current retail rate. The survey results showed that roughly 26% of our members would be interested in purchasing a portion of their needs through the Infinity Wind Energy Program under those terms.
The next step in the process was to actually sign people up with commitments prior to building the first wind turbine near Valley City. When the actual sign-up forms were sent out, less than 2% of the members in the 11 distribution cooperatives signed up for the program. The sign-up was sufficient to fund the added cost of generating power with wind at the Valley City site; however, it demonstrated that research results may not be accurate for various reasons.
We recognize that the overall interest in generating electricity with renewable resources is increasing. We also know that some of the interest is influenced by information dominating the media from strong wind advocates that is not always complete or not always accurate. Coupled with the complexity of the electric utility business, it is almost impossible for the average consumer to really know if it is a good idea to generate more electricity with wind in North Dakota. On this basis, responses to the survey may be more based on emotion than understanding.
Some people criticize Minnkota, Nodak, and the other distribution cooperatives for having a go-slow approach to wind development. We, in fact, think our approach is just right in view of all of the uncertainties which still exist relative to wind generation. We believe we are doing the right thing by being cautious with an option that is still higher in cost and questionable in value. We need to continue to evaluate wind as an option just as we need to evaluate clean-coal generation technology.
In the end, we need to meet the increasing demand for electricity, we need to be good stewards of the environment, and we need to recognize that the overall cost of electricity in North Dakota is an important and real concern.