An energy model for all to see

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2007 - 10:47 PM

A towering wind turbine at Great River Energy's new headquarters in Maple Grove is the most visible sign of its determination to be a leader in renewable energy.

Wind turbine

The 160-foot-tall wind turbine is expected to generate enough energy to power Great River Energy’s new 166,000 square-foot building in Maple Grove.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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A 160-foot-tall wind turbine in Maple Grove -- one of only five wind turbines in North American metro areas -- is expected to generate lots of energy. It's also generating plenty of buzz.

Drive through sparsely populated southwestern Minnesota and you expect to see rows of windmills sprouting from otherwise open fields.

But a wind turbine near Interstate 94 in the Twin Cities?

The towering structure with fan-like blades at its crown is the latest focal point of a new home being built for Great River Energy, an electric-utility cooperative that serves much of Minnesota and parts of western Wisconsin.

The wind turbine, just a short breeze from the Arbor Lakes Shopping Center, may tower above, but hardly dwarfs, Great River Energy's new 166,000-square-foot building, which is scheduled to open in April on Earth Day.

The entire campus is a study in energy efficiency and sustainable features. In pursuing a rare Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum rating that has been awarded to fewer than 35 buildings worldwide, Great River Energy plans to reduce energy used through lighting with solar panels and daylight and motion sensors.

The concrete structural frame consists of 60 percent fly ash, created when coal is burned to generate electricity. Rain water will be collected and used for irrigating gardens and flushing toilets. A geothermal system, buried under Arbor Lake, will heat and cool the building with low-energy ventilation placed beneath floors. The structure's wood has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a labor union for the wood industry.

"But clearly the turbine is what stands out most," said Gary Connett, director of environmental stewardship and member services for Great River Energy, currently based in Elk River.

It's been four decades since a noted Minnesotan checked the currents and proclaimed that you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. So why the turbine? The answer, Connett explained, is blowing in the wind.

"As people drive by and see it, they'll see it and hopefully realize that this is what the future has in store for us," said Connett of the turbine which, he says, can generate 225 kilowatts -- enough to power Great River Energy's new home, and enough to power 75 homes during a high-demand period.

"Our building will use 60 percent the energy a typical building this size uses. We're showing that this kind of energy innovation and conservation is possible anywhere, even in an urban area."

The only other North American urban areas to boast wind turbines are Toronto, Cincinnati and Boston, which has two, said Doug Pierce of the Perkins and Will architect firm, based in Minneapolis. It was Pierce who two years ago tried to paint a picture of what a green building might look like -- and looked to the wind turbine for direction.

Perkins and Will authorized a wind-tunnel testing agency in Toronto to build a scale model that would test a wind turbine in an urban location, where tall buildings, shopping centers and developments can block gusts both gentle and strong.

"And now we'll see how our predicted skills are," Pierce said. "Everyone will be able to see how it performs."

Letting the public see

What casual observers and the 350 employees in the new, $42 million Great River Energy center will see is a turbine tower built in Denmark, where European scientists are devoted to harnessing energy sources, and refurbished in South Dakota, where prairie winds battle the terrain and human spirit.

How can the general public catch the wind? When the building opens, a kiosk inside will allow the public to see some of the 35 meters within the headquarters that monitor how much energy is generated by the wind turbine. Readings also will be available on the company's website, Pierce said.

"There will be times when the wind turbine is working and the sun's out that we'll be generating more energy than we need -- maybe after hours on Saturdays or Sundays," Connett said. "Everything that we've done with this building has a six- to seven-year payback."

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Wind turbine