Saturday, May 14, 2005

farmers take advantage of grant to produce wind energy

Sunday, May 1, 2005 6:14 AM CDT
Colwell farmers take advantage of grant to produce wind energy
By MATTHEW WILDE, Courier Staff Writer

COLWELL --- Volatile energy prices undermine the long-term stability of agriculture. A trio of Floyd County farmers said finding a solution was a breeze.

Actually, a good, stiff wind is more like it. Brothers Larry and Dean Tjaden, and Larry's son, Scott, invested $206,000 in a used wind turbine near Colwell last year. The income generated from selling electricity is expected to help offset energy expenses for grain and livestock production.

For years, the Tjadens wondered if farming would provide enough income for both Larry, 62, and Dean, 52, to comfortably retire and Scott to return home to farm full-time.

A few years ago, the Tjadens built three hog confinement buildings and contracted to finish pigs for Heartland Pork of Alden, which eventually was purchased by Christensen Family Farms of Minnesota. The added income helps, but increasing energy bills for the buildings, along with rising diesel fuel costs, continue to eat away at profits.

"The unknown was electrical costs. We had to find some way to control that figure ... making long-term profitability more favorable," said Scott, 34.

Farming the wind seemed like a logical answer. It is a decision they probably wouldn't have made if it wasn't for the Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements Program.

Included in the 2002 Farm Bill, the program provides grants to farmers and small rural businesses to help finance renewable energy projects and make farms or businesses more energy efficient. There's $23 million available nationwide this year. Applications are due to the state U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development office by June 27.

USDA grants will pay up to 25 percent of a project. A maximum of $500,000 can be awarded for wind, solar or other renewable energy projects. Energy efficiency grants of up to $250,000 are available to upgrade grain drying and heating systems or insulate a hog building, for example.

"The USDA wants to help farmers reduce energy costs and help the country meet its energy needs," said Teresa Bomhoff, Iowa Rural Development rural energy coordinator.

Farming the wind

The 110-foot tall wind turbine with three 60-foot blades certainly sticks out in the mostly flat land and gently rolling hills in northeastern Floyd County. But to Scott, it is a thing of beauty --- especially on a windy day.

During Scott's weekly commutes to the farm --- the industrial chemical representative lives in Cedar Rapids --- the turbine is the first thing he looks for as he approaches Colwell. It is the last thing he sees in the rearview mirror when he leaves.

On a recent Monday, as he caught sight of the tower a few miles away, the wind was relatively calm. The blades were barely turning. The blade tips, which also serve as air brakes, were turned out searching for the wind. The turbine head swivels to help.

"I don't like that," he recalled thinking. Then the southerly wind picked up just as Scott drove up to the tower --- almost on cue. The tips automatically retract as the blades rotate faster and faster.

Whoosh .... Whoosh ... Whoosh. Standing under the monstrosity, it sounded like a huge, spinning carnival ride. Scott opened up a door at the tower's base to check monitoring equipment.

The generator kicked in with a slight clank. Inside the tower, the roar sounded like a jet engine in need of a tune up.

"It feels good every time (you hear that). You know your doing something good," Scott said.

A 9-mph wind generates electricity. Maximum output for the 450 kilowatt-hour unit is reached at 36 mph.

Providing enough electricity to power 80 to 100 homes a year through a clean, renewable resource isn't the main reason behind the family's decision. The main reason was financial.

They expect to make $20,000 to $25,000 a year selling electricity to Dairyland Power, based in Wisconsin. Payback on the unit is estimated at 10 years. The expected life span before a major overhaul is 20 to 25 years.

"The bottom line is we did it for our business to help control our future," Scott said.

Whether a producer is farming the land or the wind, the weather is still the wild card. The Tjadens lost money during relatively calm February.

The Tjadens do most of their own maintenance to save money, which means climbing the tower at times in the winter to chip ice away from wind speed and direction instruments. A 20 mph wind may be blowing from the northwest, but if the unit doesn't think there is wind or is pointed in the wrong direction, it won't generate power.

Program interest

Last year, seven Iowa projects received about $240,000 in program funding. The Tjadens were the only Northeast Iowa farmers to qualify.

"I would like to increase that. Last year half of the money went to three states," said Bomhoff. "We feel Iowa needs that money, too."

Bomhoff thinks the application process, time involved and the mountain of paperwork scared people in the past. This year, the process has been streamlined and a grant writing workshop was recently held.

Bomhoff hopes these improvements, along with success stories getting out to the public, will inspire others to apply. The Tjadens received $45,540 for their project. A southern Iowa couple was awarded $12,540 last year to replace old grain drying equipment, saving them an estimated $16,739.

"We'll do everything we can to work with (farmers), and make them successful," Bomhoff said.

Apparently interest is being generated with farmers around the state. Dan Malloy, sales manager with U.S. Grain Storage Systems, based in Cedar Falls, said he is getting swamped with calls. Last Monday alone, he provided 26 quotes on new equipment.

However, program officials aren't sure if the company's bins that both dry and store grain will qualify. The bins use an aeration system that doesn't need propane to dry corn.

"The way things are going, I'll have to find another salesman," Malloy said. "A lot are wondering if they qualify."

Scott said the grant process isn't easy, but farmers can do it on their own instead of paying hundreds, if not thousands, to a grant writer to do it for them.

The idea for the turbine came during supper one night in December 2003. The partners held an impromptu brainstorming session on how to insure the future of their farms. The three families farm together, but also have some of their own land.

Larry, who is on the board of directors of the local power cooperative, suggested the idea, and Scott ran with it. He researched turbines and found out financial assistance was available.

The initial goal was to meet their own electricity needs by purchasing a much cheaper and smaller turbine, in the 60 to 80 kwh range. However, Scott found a larger unit in California, and convinced his dad and uncle selling power would pay more in the long run.

"It was a tough sell," Scott said, due to the initial capital investment. "But the deal was too good to pass up."

Scott wrote and sent in the grant proposal by July of last year, consuming more than 100 hours. By August, the turbine was delivered. The first kilowatts of Tjaden power flowed into the grid in November.

"To have a thought, put a plant together ... and less than 12 months later it's running... ," Scott said. "That's the most exciting part."

Contact Matthew Wilde at (319) 291-1579 or