Wind energy firm looks for a lift

October 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Charles Grell checks the bolts on an 80-foot tower at a rural residence near Webster, Minn. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Charles Grell checks the bolts on an 80-foot tower at a rural residence near Webster, Minn. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Selling and installing 10-kilowatt wind systems hasn’t been a path to instant wealth for entrepreneur Charles Grell, owner of Cold Spring, Minn.-based Gone 2 Green Wind Energy Inc.

But Grell hopes a $1.1 million grant from Xcel Energy’s Renewable Development Fund will give his firm – and the burgeoning “small wind” movement – a needed shot in the arm. If approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission this fall, it will provide a $22,000 grant to each of 50 rural landowners in Stearns, Benton and Meeker counties, toward the purchase and installation of small wind turbines sold and installed by Gone 2 Green.

Since 2008, Gone 2 Green has been selling and installing 120-foot high wind turbines made by Norman, Okla.-based Bergey Windpower Co., a 33-year old firm. Gone 2 Green has installed 16 turbines in Minnesota.

Charles Grell, left, and Aaron Lahman, both of Gone 2 Green, check the bolts on an 80-foot tower at a rural residence near Webster, Minn. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Charles Grell, left, and Aaron Lahman, both of Gone 2 Green, check the bolts on an 80-foot tower at a rural residence near Webster, Minn. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Grell’s interest in alternative energy dates back to his teenage years in the 1960s. Growing up in the St. Cloud area, he helped a neighboring farmer install a homemade solar energy system.

After a stint at the University of Minnesota, Grell worked as a chef and then for a charitable gaming company owned by his brothers. About eight years ago, he decided to change careers and spent a couple of years researching wind energy. He learned that a number of large wind energy projects were encountering financial problems due to the complexities of transmitting wind-generated electricity and selling it to utilities.

Focusing on small wind systems, he discovered Bergey and learned that “they had the simplest turbine design, with only three moving parts. And, they have sold more turbines (worldwide) than any other brand,” says Grell, who describes himself as a self-taught engineer. At the time, Bergey was the only manufacturer offering a 10-year warranty, “when other companies were struggling to get to five years.”

Grell launched Gone 2 Green using a $50,000 home equity loan, obtained a contractor’s license and became a Bergey dealer.

Achieving sufficient revenue growth selling turbines has been a challenge for Gone 2 Green, Grell says. Until wind energy achieves more widespread use, “it’s tough to make a living at it.” So, Grell and his business partner, Aaron Lahmann, have hung onto their day jobs (Grell makes a living as a poultry and meat inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, selling wind turbines as a sideline.)

While the technology is proven, red tape seems to be the biggest hindrance to a number of companies and individuals around the U.S. who are focusing on wind energy, according to Grell. “It’s difficult if you can’t negotiate good agreements with the power companies in places like the Dakotas. And there are a lot of ‘ifs, ands or buts’” contained in state and local regulations covering wind power, he said.

Grell sells the small wind systems, including turbine, tower and power-inverter, for $67,000 each (including installation costs). At tower heights of 120 to 140 feet, wind is unencumbered by trees or buildings, Grell points out.

Bergey’s simple design makes its turbines the most reliable small wind systems in the industry, he contends. The only moving parts are the blade, the tail and two bearings in the hub.

He’s optimistic about the future of wind energy. “There’s been a slow and steady climb in interest. I tell my customers that, 10 years from now, when the cost of electricity has gone up to 28 cents per kilowatt, you won’t care when that turbine is cranking out power.”

The economics of small wind will only improve going forward, he contends, “when you consider the 30 percent tax credit, (tax benefits of) depreciation and add the fact that, sooner or later, there is going to be a carbon tax.”

Along with individual landowners, Grell says he’s also had inquiries from several corporations that are rural landowners interested in developing wind farms.

Gone 2 Green’s website lists the names and phone numbers of its customers. One is Gary Klenken, who farms 450 acres near Wilmont, Minn. (on the state’s wind energy-rich Buffalo Ridge region). Klenken bought and installed two turbines from Gone 2 Green two years ago, and also has a 24-year-old Bergey-made turbine he bought used.

Before installing the turbines, Klenken spent $300 or more per month on electricity; now, the turbines produce all he needs, and Klenken sells $300 to $400 per month worth of “extra” electricity to the local utility, he said.

Bergey President Mike Bergey said he hopes the Xcel grant will enable Gone 2 Green to develop a “clustered project” – a group of small wind turbines on multiple farms in the same area. “What we’ve learned in other markets is that when you put a number of these turbines in one area, there is a ‘critical mass’ effect: people start comparing (wind) production numbers at barbecues and at church, and it creates more interest and comfort — which creates sales momentum.”

Grell has his fingers crossed. “We’re hoping the PUC sees the value as much as our clients do.”

Ever Cat Fuels

Ownership: Charles Grell, PollyAnn Grell, Aaron Lahmann

Location: Cold Spring, Minn.

Product: Sells and installs small wind-energy systems

Website: www.gone2green.com

Size of facility: N/A

President: Charles Grell

Latest annual revenue: Not disclosed

Employees: 6

Projected hiring: 3

What’s next: Awaiting approval of $1.1 million Xcel Energy grant

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