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Winds of change

By Staff | Jun 12, 2009

When PPM Energy first announced in early 2005 it planned to construct 100 1.5-megawatt wind turbines north of Rugby, it was heralded as the state’s largest wind energy project.

Four years later, the Rugby project is under construction, but with a few changes.

-Iberdrola Renewables, Inc., purchased PPM Energy and is now the owner of the wind farm.

-And although its electricity capacity will virtually be the same as first proposed, 149.1 megawatts, fewer turbines will be erected – 71 2.1-megawatt-producing towers as opposed to 100 1.5-megawatt ones.

-And no longer will it hold the distinction of being the largest wind project in North Dakota.

Indeed, much has changed over those four years, in terms of wind development in North Dakota.

In that short period of time the state, which has been dubbed the Saudi Arabia of wind energy potential, has moved near the bottom of the ranking of states regarding wind development -to 12th. Currently, there are 488 wind turbines in operation producing 715 megawatts of power.

“And we’re looking at over 1,000 megawatts by the end of the year,’ says Kevin Cramer, (PSC) Public Service Commis-sioner. “It’s been an explosion (of development).”

Up until a few years ago wind energy amounted to just a few turbines generating limited electricity.

So what’s behind the recent surge?

Timing has much to do with it, Cramer said. North Dakota has been known for its incredible potential for wind development, and now it has been scientifically proven. The results caused more companies to consider the state’s wind energy potential. Investment is contagious, and more companies saw the potential in North Dakota, Cramer added.

Eventually, the proposed projects and the need for additional space on power grids to export power grew, which required the oversight of the PSC to review and potentially grant permits for large-scale projects.

In fact, Rugby’s wind farm was the first application in the state which the PSC administered. The permit was eventually approved in the fall of 2005.

Despite the sagging economy, wind development has been somewhat insulated, continuing to see growth. Wind energy has strong support in the political arena, receiving stimulus dollars and tax incentives for continued development.

Cramer believes the pace set in North Dakota for its planning, construction and operation has been slower, but steady. That pace enables the public and PSC to closely monitor how these projects have fit into communities, the benefits, the concerns and drawbacks.

“Yet there are critics who say, ‘Why isn’t North Dakota going faster in wind development?’,” Cramer said. “I think we’re going at a nice pace.”

The major hurdle to overcome in wind energy development is adequate capacity on transmission lines to transport the electricity generated. Cramer said steps continue to be made to address that.

Earlier wind projects were limited by the megawatts available on nearby transmission grids. Now planned projects are developing transmission lines or tie-ins with existing lines in Minnesota to handle more produced electricity.

One such project, which has been filed with the PSC, includes building a 765-kilovolt transmission line linked to a wind farm in western North Dakota.

Most of the larger projects are being constructed by or in partnership with regional or national energy companies. Among them is Florida Power and Light (FPL).

The largest wind farm in service is currently located in Barnes County, under the ownership of FPL. The 200-megawatt Ashtabula Wind, LLC includes 133 turbines. The PSC received letters of intent last summer concerning two projects which would have the capacity of 1,000 and 2,000 megawatts, respectively.

Wind energy projects give a significant economic boost to the communities and counties they are near. While they receive tax incentives during the construction phase, in time they generate a sizable property tax return to the county. They bring a few jobs to the community and provide payment to land owners, who enter lease agreements to put up wind turbines on their property. And during construction, many businesses and individuals benefit from the influx of workers into the community.

Yet wind farms do have their opponents. Some discount the benefits they bring, in terms of energy production, and their effect on the environment. Some say they ruin the prairie landscape, create noise and can disturb wildlife habitat. Cramer acknowledged that more and more concerns are being addressed during PSC hearings by property owners residing near proposed projects.

The PSC’s task is to weigh those concerns in its decision making when determining the fate of wind energy permits.

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