North Dakota monastery sees pay back from wind power

Two wind turbines near the Sacred Heart Monastery catch the breezes coming through the valley below. They have become part of prairie landscape, generating electricity for the monastery since June 1997.

"We’re very pleased with the wind turbines," said previous prioress, Sister Ruth Fox, OSB. "We were considered leaders in the state of North Dakota — something we’re proud of." While the technology has advanced over the years, Fox added, "Our little old wind turbines are still doing their work."

It took a step of faith, supported by research, to go forward with the investment. "People told us at the time, it was a bad decision for us — that they wouldn’t work, but we had been researching for a long time, so it seemed like the thing to try," said current prioress, Sister Paula Larson, OSB.

The monastery was awarded a $10,000 North Dakota Economic Development grant to pursue wind energy. "Part of the agreement is we would say why it worked, and if it didn’t work, we’d say why it didn’t work."

Word of the turbine’s success spread throughout the state. "We’ve had numerous schools, colleges and groups come out — we taught classes on wind energy and how it works," she said. The desire to control of cost of electricity was the initial reason to go forward with the plan.

"Ours was a true financial need because electricity is something that always increases year to year," she said. "With our building design, we couldn’t do any of the things the utilities recommended to control demand. For whatever reason, we’re wired as one unit."

Wind energy was not intended as the sole source of electricity — it was considered as a supplement. "They work together like hand and glove," she said. The second reason to pursue wind energy was environmental.

"We still have a strong interest in preserving our environment, and doing our little part in enhancing the environment," said Larson. "We were told, based on the first 10 years, we saved 1,840 tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere — that’s 310 cars off the road or 1,800 acres of trees."

The total investment in the wind turbines came to $120,000. "As for the pay back, we estimated we could save $12,000 over 10 years — we’ve far exceeded that," she said. "Our highest production year was 2006-07 when 53 percent of our energy was provided by the wind."

The most recent report from July 1-30, indicates wind energy produced 35.6 percent of the monastery’s total electrical needs during that period.

The monastery was recently restructured and is heated by geothermal energy. The pumps also are powered by the wind-generated electricity.

If consumption is low for the day, the excess electricity is sold back to the utilities — Roughrider Electric Cooperative Inc.

"We can’t use all of the energy on a given day when it’s really blowing," said Larson. "I love to watch the meter in the garage and see the arrow going backwards."

The high wind months are November through April in North Dakota, she said.

"This is hilarious — we’ve taken a totally different attitude about the wind since we’ve gone into wind energy," she said.

Larson said the monastery is affiliated with the Enxco — the company that installed the wind turbines.

"We have several service people to troubleshoot — most of the service done is with maintenance," she said.

She compares the turbines to maintenance of a vehicle.

"I always say when servicing a car, check the oil levels and make sure everything is working properly," she said.

"Recently we had a break that burned out and it was a matter of ordering a replacement."

Over the years, Larson has noticed the turbine to the west starts before the one to the east.

"We recently had a little problem with the one to the east — it was sending messages to the computer that said it should shut down. We called Enxco and they came out — something with the computer," she said.

With a chance to reflect, Larson said the sisters did the best they could with the technology and their finances at the time.

"Knowing what we know now, we would have liked one larger turbine to serve instead of two," she said.

Wind energy is a growing industry in North Dakota, she said.

"North Dakota is considered the Saudi Arabia of wind — now we’re moving ahead with more wind farms going up all the time," said Larson. "I think wind turbines are the most beautiful thing in the world and I like to stand in the field and watch them turn."

The North Dakota Department of Commerce works with the Renewable Energy Program and State Energy Program to develop renewable energy across the state, said Andrea Holl Pfennig, program administrator within the Commerce’s Office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency.

"We have seen a steady increase in the use of wind and biofuels as energy resources," said Pfenning. "The possibilities for renewable energy development are endless in North Dakota, given the wind and biomass resources available along with rapidly advancing technology."

Linda Sailer, The Dickinson Press,