They can be seen in old Monet paintings, stout and sensible in red and white coats of paint, as well as in classic literature in the form of fearsome giants.
Depicted in these many ways for centuries – from majestic and romantic to humble and utilitarian – they have recently become the subject of public debate in Northfield.
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Windmills, or “wind turbines” as they are known today, are already sprouting up throughout Rice County. Both colleges in town, Carleton and St. Olaf, already own productive and popular turbines. Located on their respective campuses, the turbines stand 350-feet tall and have a blade diameter of about 270-feet in order to catch as much wind as possible.
Carleton’s wind turbine – the first in the nation to be installed by a college – provides enough pollution-free electricity to power 40 percent of its annual electricity consumption, and St. Olaf’s turbine provides its campus with about 30 percent of its annual energy usage.
However, new plans to build more turbines in Northfield has some residents concerned.
A business partnership, Sparks Energy and Medin Renewable Energy, announced plans last July to build a new wind farm six miles north Northfield. After concerns were raised about the visual impact of the turbines on the surrounding landscape, they reduced the number of turbinesplanned to ten from 11.
Still, some area residents continue to harbor doubts.
“There is some controversy over how useful they will be,” says Merry Hoekstra, Administrative Assistant to the Carleton College Library and Northfield resident.
Some Northfielders say the town already has enough turbines, Hoekstra said, while others remain worried that ten turbines might mar the landscape or the charm of the small rural town.
Also, “some people don’t think they will be as productive” as the town’s two existing turbines, she said.
Others feel the wind turbines would be better built in other areas of the state.
Southwestern Minnesota in particular is known to be an ideal location for wind farms because it has consistently high-speed winds, higher elevation than most of the rest of the state, and large, open expanses of farmland.
Carole Christensen, the owner of an antiques shop on Division Street, said she was aware of some controversy surrounding new turbines, but she did not share those concerns.
“If we need them, I am all for building more,” she says.
RENew Northfield, an environmentally-minded organization that promotes sustainability in the area, also supports the building of more wind turbines locally.
In 2003, RENew led a group of Rice County commissioners through a wind farm about forty-five miles from Northfield in Dodge Center, Minnesota. This trip so impressed the Zoning and Planning committee members that they soon unanimously approved Rice County’s own wind energy ordinance.
The ordinance provided the catalyst for the construction of Carleton’s wind turbine within Northfield city limits soon thereafter.
This sort of outcome encourages RENew to keep pushing for more local understanding and acceptance of wind turbines, as part of a broader societal embrace of alternative energy.
“Unfortunately, I think the great majority falls in the ambivalent category: ‘Take them or leave them, don’t bother me,'” said Charlie Stark, director of RENew Northfield. “That still is the greatest challenge, to move that great majority, to get them educated, and to get them involved.”