An article by Danielle Endvick in The Country Today:

The turbine foundations have been built and basic infrastructure is in place for Wisconsin’s first community wind project.

Cashton Greens Wind Farm, set to begin operation this spring near Highway 27 southwest of Cashton in Monroe County, is expected to generate nearly 5 megawatts of energy, enough to power 1,000 Cashton homes annually.

The $11 million renewable energy project is a collaborative effort of the Village of Cashton, Gundersen Lutheran Health System and Organic Valley, the nation’s largest cooperative of organic farmers.

Cecil Wright, Organic Valley director of sustainability, said planning on the wind farm, which is being erected on land near the cooperative’s distribution center, began in 2008.

“It’s taken a lot of discussion and a lot of learning,” he said.

The project is one of several Organic Valley has spearheaded in an effort to gain energy independence. Others included the use of biodiesel in its truck fleet, solar photovoltaic windows in its headquarters and solar hot water panels in its cheese packaging plant and cafe.

The cooperative also encourages energy efficiency for its members through an On-Farm Sustainability Program.

“Our farmers and board have always wanted us to be responsible and get involved in renewable energy,” Wright said. “Climate change is real for us, there’s no doubt about that. Our farmers get that, our organization gets it, our consumers get it.”

Electricity generated from Cashton Green’s two commercial-scale turbines will flow into the Cashton power grid. The village invested in the wind farm’s infrastructure.

As developers and owners of Cashton Greens, Organic Valley and Gundersen will receive income per kilowatt hour generated. Through a renewable energy contract with the Upper Midwest Municipal Power Agency, the two companies will buy back energy to offset their footprints.

“We’ll turn around and buy it back after it goes through the system,” Wright said, “but the actual electrons will be used by the village.”

The partner companies will benefit from renewable energy credits.

Wright said the wind farm will allow Organic Valley to hedge rising energy costs.

“As the price of electric goes up, our project revenue will go up with it,” he said.

A pre-project performance study suggested a pay-off point of 20 years, he said.

“If the cost of electricity goes up, it should more than pay for itself in that time,” he said.

A plan for independence

Cashton Greens is one step in a long-term plan to make Gundersen Lutheran energy independent by 2014.

Corey Zarecki, director of engineering and operations for Envision, Gundersen’s renewable energy program, said the health care system has aggressively worked toward that goal since 2008.

“Within the first 18 months, we improved energy efficiency by 20 percent,” he said.

Zarecki said Gundersen’s interest in renewable energy was spurred by increasing utility costs.

In 2007, the system’s energy costs were increasing at a rate of more than $350,000 per year.

“Those costs were translating as higher health care costs,” Zarecki said. “We chose to do something about it.”

The resulting renewable energy program has led to implementation of solar and biomass electric, a heat and power partnership with a local brewery, and an Onalaska landfill gas energy project that will be operational in 2012.

Gundersen is also tied to a similar wind farm site near Lewiston, Minn., that should be running by New Year’s, Zarecki said.

“Our overall goal with Envision is to be both ‘green’ and ‘green,’ ” he said. “We want to reduce the cost of health care while being green from the environmental perspective and the financial perspective.”

Most Envision projects have had paybacks of five to 10 years, Zarecki said.

The health care provider is invested in improving the communities it serves, he said.

“If you think about a hospital, we’ve been the community for 100 years,” he said, “and we hope to be in the community for longer than that, into the future.”

With the wind farm and completion of recent solar projects, Wright said renewable energy will account for 10 percent of energy usage at the Organic Valley headquarters.

The wind farm will also serve as a living lab for students from the Western Technical College of La Crosse.

Wright and Zarecki said they hope Cashton Greens sets an example.

“Most wind projects are done by developers or utilities,” Wright said. “It’s a little more unusual for companies and a community to get together.”

Michels Corporation, a Brownsville-based contractor will install the turbines.

The partners are anxious to see the turbines at work.

“The tower and blades will show up in February, and we’ll begin installation in March,” Wright said. “We’re hoping to have things turning by May.”