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Benedictine sisters showing wind energy can work

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RICHARDTON, N.D. (AP) -- A few hundred yards from the cross tower at the Sacred Heart Monastery, two other towers rise from the rugged ranchland toward the heavens.

Their purpose has nothing to do with religion, everything to do with economics.For two years, the two 100-foot-tall wind turbines have been saving money and generating electricity for the monastery's 24 Benedictine sisters.

"I love to watch them," said Sister Barbara Ann Schwab. "When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is look to see if they're moving."

If the turbine blades are moving, then the sisters need to buy less electricity from their utility in southwestern North Dakota. If the wind is really blowing, they can sell any excess power to a wholesaler.

The monastery is one of the forerunners of what likely will be a boom in wind energy projects in North Dakota, say officials involved with the developing science.

"The costs have come way down with wind energy; it's much more competitive with fossil fuel resources," said Kim Christianson, energy programs manager for the state Division of Community Services.

The sisters, who get no financial aid from the Roman Catholic Church, raise llamas on the prairie to help pay their bills. About 3 1/2 years ago, they decided to try wind power to cut costs and be friendlier to the environment, said Prioress Sister Paula Larson.

"It was a leap of faith," Larson said. "We thought, if it works in the rest of the world, why wouldn't it work here?"

In the first year of operation, the turbine generated 37 percent of the electricity the monastery used at a savings of $12,105. Second year production reached 44 percent at a savings of $15,836, Larson said.

The project cost $120,000.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy, determined that North Dakota has the greatest wind resource of any of the lower 48 states, Christianson said.

Even so, the state trails others in wind energy development.

"Anybody that's involved in wind energy will tell you we're way behind," said Brad Stevens, a project engineer at the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center.

The reasons, he said, are low utility rates in North Dakota and resistance to new forms of energy that might threaten the state's coal industry.

But support for "green" power could encourage wider development.

"More people are willing to pay a little extra on their utility bill to say their electricity is coming from a renewable resource, and a nonpolluting resource," Christianson said.

For their part, the sisters say the project is a success.

"There are times, certainly, when the wind gets to be too much for you, it kind of gets on your nerves," Larson said. "That happens here, too, but at least it's not worthless wind."