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Published June 08, 2009, 12:07 AM

N.D. wind industry holds its own

Those who blow a lot of hot air about the global economic crisis and credit crunch might as well be spitting into the North Dakota wind, at least when it comes to the state’s wind energy industry.

By: Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald

Those who blow a lot of hot air about the global economic crisis and credit crunch might as well be spitting into the North Dakota wind, at least when it comes to the state’s wind energy industry.

“What you heard about nationally, with the credit meltdown, the wind industry was having a tough time getting short-term credit for renewable energy,” North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark said. “In North Dakota, not so much. It’s fair to say that it probably has had some impact. It maybe slowed the growth curve some, but not a huge drop-off.”

North Dakota currently has 488 wind turbines in operation, producing about 715 megawatts of electricity. That’s enough energy to power more than 205,000 homes.

The PSC estimates that by the end of the year, the state’s wind energy output will be close to 1,000 megawatts, or enough to power almost 290,000 homes.

“An average base load coal plant averages about 500 megawatts of power,” Clark said. “So, with 1,000 megawatts from wind — that’s like adding two new coal plants in a relatively short amount of time. And a new coal plant takes a decade or more to come to fruition.”

Besides the 488 turbines now operating, the PSC currently has applications, letters of intent or other filings from groups for another 1,412 turbines, or 5,540 megawatts of wind energy, or 1.6 million homes.

While not all of those wind farms ultimately will be built, Clark said the numbers indicate that North Dakota continues to be a strong market for wind energy development.

No requests

As of Friday, the PSC has received no requests from developers to withdraw their letters of intent, Clark said.

Many of North Dakota’s large-scale wind projects are being developed by or in cooperation with major regional or national utilities or energy companies, such as Minnkota Power Cooperative, Otter Tail Power Co., Xcel Energy or Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources, an affiliate of the FPL Group, a Florida-based subsidiary of Florida Power and Light that has developed almost half of the state’s wind farms.

Besides federal tax incentives, which recently were extended by Congress, the larger companies have better access to short-term capital for construction projects than smaller energy developers, according to Clark.

While several wind farms could begin construction this year in the state, at least two in central and eastern North Dakota are expected to be completed:

- Rugby Wind Farm, a 71-turbine, 149-megawatt wind farm now under construction near Rugby, N.D.

- Luverne Wind Farm, a 157-megawatt wind farm in Griggs and Steele County developed by M-Power LLC, a community-based wind energy development company.

M-Power sold a 49.5-megawatt portion of that farm to Otter Tail Power Co., based in Fergus Falls, Minn.

Public hearing

The PSC held a public hearing in Cooperstown, N.D., Friday to consider proposed changes in the alignment of some of the 33 wind towers.

Otter Tail expects the $110 million facility to be completed by the end of the year. It is located adjacent to Otter Tail’s 200-megawatt Ashtabula Wind Energy Center that was built in 2008.

The company expects to apply for a treasury grant available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to cover about 30 percent of the project cost.

“Our wind energy projects must be cost-effective for our customers, which means that we must be able to complete a project in a timeframe that allows us to use tax incentives,” Otter Tail President Chuck McFarlane said.

M-Power also recently reached an agreement to sell the remaining 110-megawatt portion of the Luverne Wind Farm to NextEra Energy Resources LLC.

North Dakota currently ranks 12th in the nation in wind energy capacity.

By comparison, Texas has more than 8,000 megawatts of wind energy installed.

Iowa has about 2,900, California 2,700 and Minnesota 1,800.

“We were close to No. 50 a decade ago,” Clark said. “We’ve been able to do it while having significant transmission difficulties to overcome. We’re farther from the markets than other states.”

President Obama’s renewable energy policy calls for the expansion of the nation’s renewable energy industry, including wind energy and electrical transmission capability.

New transmission line

Minnkota Power Cooperative currently is proposing a new 345-kilovolt transmission line from Center, N.D., to Grand Forks. When completed, that will allow the cooperative to dedicate another transmission line solely to wind energy, which will be sent to markets in Minnesota.

“We have been very successful in building transmission within the borders of North Dakota,” Clark said. “That’s helped fuel the growth we’ve seen. But if wind power is going to significantly grow, we need to build transmission capacity to move the power to larger markets.”

He said utility officials in four or five Upper Midwest states are discussing ways to send power from this region to Chicago and the East, not through existing or additional 345-kv transmission lines but through 760-kv lines.

“There’s got to be a greater regional or national effort to get transmission lines built,” he said, “so we can market this valuable resource we have to the nation.”