Mortenson, which builds about a quarter of America's wind-energy projects, is underway on its 100th wind installation while also marking its 15th year in the alternative-energy construction business.
The Rolling Hills Wind Farm in southeastern Iowa also is one of the largest projects ever built in the United States. When completed in December, Rolling Hills will generate 444 megawatts -- enough to power about 130,000 homes. The project is being built for Iowa-based MidAmerican Energy of Des Moines.
Mortenson will erect 193 Siemens, 2.3-megawatt, 80-meter-high wind turbines and build access roads and other infrastructure.
Mortenson also is building two wind power projects in Canada and nine in the United States. In all, Mortenson expects to add 1,363 megawatts of clean electrical power to the U.S. power grid by year-end 2011 that can power the equivalent of 400,000 homes.
"The scale of the Rolling Hills wind project is a solid indicator about the appetite for wind power in the U.S.," said Tom Wacker, a senior vice president who leads Mortenson's Renewable Energy Groups. "We're off to a good start for the first half of 2011. We've handled over 20 [wind farms] at one time, so we've got some capacity."
Mortenson's Renewable Energy Group includes 265 professionals, about 200 skilled trades workers and employs hundreds more annually through on-site subcontractors. The wind business slipped in 2010, but has a shot this year of approaching its record-construction year of 2009, thanks to rising coal prices and clean-energy mandates in Minnesota and other states.
According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the industry installed 1,118 megawatts in the first quarter of 2011. Another 5,600 megawatts is under construction. That's nearly twice the megawatts reported at this time in 2009 and in 2010.
Mortenson last year posted revenue of nearly $2.5 billion, according to Engineer News Record, an industry publication. Wacker said 21 percent is derived from Mortenson's wind and solar installations.
The growth of the wind industry, albeit significant over the past decade, has been hampered by volatile fossil-fuel prices and year-to-year, 11th-hour changes in federal tax incentives. Regardless, the wind and solar industries have lowered their per-unit cost of energy production thanks to improving technology and scale.
And Wacker said some of the Mortenson projects with the latest-model turbines in favorable wind alleys are able to average 45 percent of maximum output over time. The industry was stuck around 30 percent a few years ago.
"Efficiency depends on wind resources and taller turbines and larger-diameter blades," Wacker said.
Minnesota, with about 4,500 megawatts installed, generates about 10 percent of its power from wind, ranking third among the states, according to the AWEA.
Carlson, the global hospitality and travel company, and contractor Mortenson have broken ground on a 500-room, $137 million "Radisson Blu Hotel at Mall of America," which has been seen as key to the planned expansion of the Bloomington mall that also is a huge tourist destination.
"It is our second Radisson Blu announced in the United States and is an important next step for the Phase II high-end expansion at Mall of America," said Thorsten Kirschke, chief operating officer of Carlson Hotels.
The upscale hotel will connect by skyway to the mall and be located on the south side between Macy's and Bloomingdale's department stores.
The Great Recession put a damper on financing for the mall expansion, both from reluctant Minnesota legislators during previous sessions, and from bankers, as credit for construction projects dried up. The mall's owners decided last year to break down the expansion into smaller pieces.
Raising financing for the project was no slam dunk and includes some government assistance.
The financial sources include tax-exempt federal bonds left over from the economic stimulus program of 2009-10; mortgage secured notes; general obligation bonds from the city of Bloomington; a Mall of America skywalk contribution, and developer equity. The mortgage notes are held by trade pension funds and community banks. The project is expected to create about 250 full-time construction jobs and about 240 hotel jobs.
"There are a lot of people and agencies behind the scenes that helped make this happen," said Jerry Tabolich, executive vice president at Dougherty Funding, which arranged and placed the debt.
Kurt McIntire, a University of Minnesota civil engineering graduate student, is about to have an interesting summer internship.
"How many times in your life do you get the opportunity to save someone else's?" McIntire said the other day. "How many times do you receive the needed support to create a global impact?"
McIntire is a member of one of four teams of student entrepreneurs whose business plans are winners of the 2011 Acara Challenge, sponsored by the U of M's Institute on the Environment program that challenges international student teams to develop "social businesses."
The winners get $5,000 toward travel plus tuition to attend the Acara Summer Institute in Bangalore, India, where they will move from plan to action.
Adam Witt, a graduate civil engineering student in water resources who spent several years at Travelers Insurance before returning to school, is part of a U of M and TERI University in Delhi team that will develop a cellphone-based solution to deliver information on food and water availability in slums. The program is designed to help impoverished families get clean, inexpensive water and nutrition.
For example, the 1,000-person slum known as Kooli Camp lacks clean running water and has no government food-ration stores, leaving citizens at the mercy of black marketeers.
Yet 80 percent of the adults have cheap cellphones. And they spend hours daily searching outside the neighborhood for water from intermittent public taps, food and kerosene at government-subsidized shops miles away.
The Witt team, using a couple of paid "runners" with cellphones, will help develop a system that will transmit information about the nearest locations of cheap commodities at government-sponsored stations for a flat fee of 40 cents per month.
"If we can't get them to public taps, or to the ration store for fuel, they have to go to the black market, where they pay double," Witt said. "If we can save 20 rupees, we pay for a program subscription for a month. If these kids have water and are fed, it's easier to keep them in school [rather than scrounging for food]."
McIntire's team, called Sewasan, another U of M-TERI team, is a cooperative that will create and maintain toilet facilities in urban slums for a fee. The presence of these facilities should decrease the spread of food- and water-borne illnesses, increase quality of life and provide employment for residents.