Standing around in a wind turbine might not sound like the most exciting way to spend an evening but if the owner Jim Nichols is there it can be pretty intense. He is not as young as he used to be and he has seen a lot of failures in U.S. systems but he has certainly not lost his passion. It is refreshing to see such resolve and optimism in the face of potential social, economic and environmental crises. Jim owns and operates a farm on the Buffalo Ridge in southwestern Minnesota. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Morris he served as Lincoln County commissioner, Minnesota state senator and Minnesota Secretary of Agriculture. He has also taught high school in South Dakota. For years he has been a leader in promoting renewable energy, good farming and good sense. He helped to establish renewable energy in Minnesota, working to create legislation and build infrastructure. Jim thinks wind energy has the potential to create jobs that won’t be outsourced, help us transition away from fossil fuels and boost local economies.
Some people argue against wind turbines. They say they are ugly, expensive, noisy and dangerous to birds. Jim disagrees. “I think they’re beautiful”, he says. Xcel energy buys the power his turbine produces for 3.35 cents per kWh. This is some of the cheapest energy in America and much cheaper than what Jim pays Lyon-Lincoln REA. He pays about 9.8 cents per kWh. The 3.35 cent price is fixed for the course of the contract (25 years in Jim’s case). Xcel does not need to worry about rising fuel costs with wind power. The initial cost for the turbine was $1.5 million and there is maintenance as with any machine, but at the rate it is producing power it will pay itself off before the contract is up. People do not realize how much power wind turbines can produce. Over a year Jim’s turbine produces the energy of about 10.3 barrels of oil per day. Most oil wells average that. More advanced turbines produce even more. Wind scarcity is unlikely to strike anytime soon. Like he says, “My oil well will never run dry”. The wind blows, the blades spin, electricity flows. If you listen closely you can hear a gentle hum. His turbine has never killed a bird. As Jim points out cars are way more dangerous to animals than wind turbines. Jim does not think that wind energy is the answer to all of the world’s energy problems but it can be a major part of the solution. Lincoln County has already seen the benefits of investing in wind energy. There is a lot of potential. Every kilowatt produced by a wind turbine is a kilowatt not produced by fossil fuels. Jim points to Denmark’s success with wind energy. Denmark is exporting turbines while U.S. wind industries are threatened by expiring tax credits. If wind energy is so great why isn’t the United States making it a priority?
Policies encouraging renewable development are inadequate. “Government should take aggressive action and require renewable energy”, says Jim. This isn’t happening enough. Tax credits for wind expire every two years. Oil wells receive around $40 billion in subsidies annually. “I’ve been farming all my life and I know when the field is level”, he says. According to Jim, “we have the best Congress money can buy. Congress knows we need wind turbines but then votes against them”. He tells of how he walked legislators to the voting chamber, made sure that no lobbyists could grab them on the way, listened to their assertions that they knew to support wind and when they got in there they voted against wind turbines. So many things just do not make sense. Many of our elected officials have failed. We have not been smart in how we produce, consume and transport energy. We have not invested in making sure that future generations will have great lives. We are letting the infrastructure our grandparents built crumble. Like he says, “It’s embarrassing. We are in stupid wars, using stupid energy and in a mountain of debt”. Jim thinks we can do better. To him it’s obvious, “Every road has two ditches! Put transmission lines in them!” Invest in renewable energy. Make sure to plant cover crops. Fix the grid. Build electric cars. Get rid of the politicians that ‘wage war, increase the debt and destroy the environment’. The ideas that Jim advocates are not impractical. They are common sense. We have to be smarter.
Jim Nichols is an educator, an activist and a farmer. Recently he has been working on are getting transmission lines for wind energy, maintaining and increasing renewable energy legislation, giving tours of his wind turbine and of course, farming. He optimistic about the future and our ability to solve the problems we face. He works to educate, inspire, change policies and help people take action. Jim loves connecting with people of all backgrounds and political affiliations (he thinks we should all be independents anyway). His message gets across. Our HECUA class got an ear full during our visit to his wind turbine. It was time well spent. Jim encouraged us to act, “You need to fight for this [specifically continuing wind power investment]… it’s for your life and that of your children. Call your senators! Be aggressive!” He told us how important it is that we call Amy Klobuchar and get Minnesota’s 25% renewable energy by 2025 requirement into federal law. Amy has already introduced the bill in the Senate. We need to make sure it gets passed. Think of all the jobs manufacturing, constructing and maintaining 300,000 wind turbines will create. Wind energy tax credits expire in 2012. Factories have already been shutting down. We can’t afford to go backwards. We need the jobs and the clean energy. To get 25% of our energy from renewable sources by 2025 we have to get the legislation in place now. Jim is a great example of the power that there is in being passionate and taking action. He puts his time, energy and money into building a better future. We should all follow his lead and get to work. For us and for our children.
By Travis Wagner