By Jan Ahlen, NFU Climate and Energy Coordinator

The 2011 Renewable Energy Tour kicked off yesterday at the Midwest Dairy Institute in Milbank, S.D. We had a great turnout from local Farmers Union members who were very interested in learning more about diversifying their revenue stream through the production of renewable energy. We heard first from the owner of the Midwest Dairy Institute, who gave an overview of how his biogas digester works, the current policy environment in South Dakota for digesters, the various opportunities and the pitfalls to avoid. Farmers Union members then heard from Dirk Ketelsen, a German farmer and renewable energydeveloper.

Dirk’s story is much like the story of the renewable energy industry in Germany. Dirk talked about his start as an organic farmer and struggling to install his first wind turbine on his farm in 1989. At the time, and not unlike the U.S. today, Germany did not have a favorable policy environment to promote the spread of renewable energy that it does today. In fact, muchlike renewable energy farmers in the U.S., Dirk was criticized for trying something that was considered impractical. Then, beginning in 1990, Germany enacted policies that allowed renewable energy projects guaranteed access to the grid with long-term contracts. With these policies in place, Dirk was able to install more wind turbines and started his own wind development firm. These policies led to an explosion of renewable energy development in rural communities. In Germany, about half of the renewable energy projects are locally owned by the farmers and community residents. This means that profits made from the sale of electricity goes back into the local economy. The resulting economic benefit has resulted in more than 370,000 green jobs. Dirk has grown from having a single turbine on his farm into a wind business owner who provides enough electricity for roughly 400,000 residents. This is about half the population of South Dakota! With the right policy environment, this story can be replicated in the U.S.

The next stop on the tour will be with the Minnesota Farmers Union at the University of Minnesota-Morris, which should be another productive and informative discussion with farmers, ranchers, local residents, policy makers and local business owners.

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