The Walk for Wind returns

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This May and June, Sierran Club members and other wind power supporters will once again—as in 2004—be wending their way across parts of the Minnesota landscape on a series of weekend walks to promote clean, renewable energy. But this year, the “Walk for Wind” will have added purpose and urgency: subtitled the “March against Mercury,” it will simultaneously target the proposed 600-megawatt coal-fired power plant planned to be located just across the South Dakota line. The unit, known as Big Stone II, is one of almost 50 new coal-fired plants proposed for the Midwest.

This year’s walk is being developed by the North Star Chapter Clean Air and Renewable Energy Committee, in concert with other statewide organizations and groups, such as western Minnesota’s CURE (Clean Up our River Environment), the Izaak Walton League, Clean Water Action, and others. We will again begin in mid-May in the vicinity of Buffalo Ridge (exact dates and locations are still being set). This now-famous swath of wind-rich real estate arcs across the southwestern corner of Minnesota and supports hundreds of large wind turbines capable of producing anywhere from 750 kilowatts to a megawatt or more apiece at peak output. This year’s event, however, will cover much more of the western edge of the state than the 2004 walk, including an area well north of Buffalo Ridge. Another addition this year to the Walk for Wind is the inclusion of tribal wind projects. This addition is an opportunity to point out how bad energy policy has affected Native Americans, and how wind power becomes an avenue of achieving environmental justice and economic independence for indigenous communities.

From the beginning, the Walk for Wind was driven both by a commitment to the vision of generating electricity from wind—Minnesota has enough of the stuff to power itself many times over—and by a deep concern about the state’s current 75 percent reliance on coal for electricity, which dramatically exceeds the national average of little more than 50 percent This year, there is also growing alarm over both the mercury pollution from coal-burning and coal’s enormous contribution to the nation’s carbon dioxide output—the primary factor in global climate change—which has strengthened interest in the walk both within the chapter and beyond. The plans for Big Stone II, which fly in the face of a need to cut back both mercury and CO2 emissions, are a strong stimulus to action. That’s especially true for concerned Minnesotans living closest to the Big Stone site.

The walk is both an activist event and a recreational one: besides extensive hiking (most of it admittedly along roadsides for public visibility), it includes Saturday-night campouts—optional, but based on the 2004 experience, much-enjoyed by most participants. The overriding aim, however, is public education. The 2004 Walk for Wind was widely reported by local newspapers, several of which helpfully publicized the itinerary of the “WindWalkers;” smaller papers in particular gave the event remarkable coverage.

This year’s walk/march, like its predecessor, will include visits to several large wind farms along Buffalo Ridge and will likely also include visits to sites of some small wind turbines like those owned by many individual farmers, Native American communities, and renewable-energy advocates. The organizers also have an eye out for any local solar photovoltaic and solar thermal installations that may lie along the route; solar power is also strongly endorsed by the chapter, in part because it is a technology readily available—at a wide range of levels of commitment and investment—to individuals. One related aim is to publicize the little-known fact that Minnesota has more available solar potential than some parts of Florida.

The project anticipates support from key individuals and institutions knowledgeable about both the technology and the politics of energy. In 2004, help came from people like former Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Jim Nichols, who is both a farmer and a strong advocate of wind power. There was also support from the Heritage and Windpower Learning Center in Lake Benton, which helped organize the first legs of the walk. Another boost came from well-known wind power developer Dan Juhl, who offered a tour of one of his facilities during the second weekend. It’s hoped that endorsement may come from these same quarters this time around, but also from new supporters like polar explorer Will Steger, who’s targeting global warming and speaking about it region-wide.

Organizing multiple segments of such an event can be hard work: locating campsites at the right distance from the start and endpoints of each leg, for example, can be quite a challenge. (Lesser-known campgrounds are often located only thanks to input—sometimes at the last minute—from local activists and supporters.) Different weekends offer distinct challenges, as well as opportunities. Hearing from local folk about previously unpublicized plans for construction of a new wind turbine (or an entire wind farm), for example, may mean a chance to tour its proposed location and learn more about the details of siting and installation.

In its 2004 incarnation, the Walk for Wind — both through media coverage, and through its visibility to the public while literally “on the road” — reached the public with a message both practical and visionary: Minnesota’s wind is the key home-grown power resource for our future. The 2006 Walk for Wind/March against Mercury will reiterate that point, and simultaneously underscore that continuing to build “old-coal” power plants is both nonsensical and dangerous. How effectively both points are made will inevitably depend on the extent of volunteer enthusiasm and the numbers of “WindWalkers” who come along on the several weekends. So join us! To help with planning and logistics, or to ask about weekend-by-weekend details, call the North Star Chapter’s Clean Air Organizer, Cesia Kearns, at 612-659-9124, or email her at: cesia.kearns@sierraclub.org.

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