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N.D. braces to harness wind energy

North Dakota, with its howling prairie gales, has long been called the Saudi Arabia of wind-energy potential. The state's persistent breezes are capable of generating more than 1.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity - enough juice to light mor...

Graphic: Powering North Dakota

North Dakota, with its howling prairie gales, has long been called the Saudi Arabia of wind-energy potential.

The state's persistent breezes are capable of generating more than 1.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity - enough juice to light more than a quarter of the nation if fully tapped.

North Dakota's actual wind-power production, however, has been miniscule compared to its potential - 178 megawatts as of the end of last year, compared to 895 megawatts for Minnesota, which ranks far below top-ranked North Dakota in its potential, according to figures from the American Wind Energy Association.

But that lagging performance is changing, as signaled by an announcement last week that Xcel Energy plans to add 200 megawatts of wind capacity in the state by 2011.

Just weeks earlier, partners including Minnkota Power Cooperative and Otter Tail Power Co. announced what will be North Dakota's largest wind farm, a 159-megawatt project near Langdon on which construction will begin soon.

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State figures show North Dakota now has more than 682 megawatts of wind power in operation or under development, with a lot more coming, state officials and industry representatives agree.

Kevin Cramer, a member of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, said state officials know of more than 2,000 megawatts of wind-energy projects under consideration in the state, beyond those pending permits or under construction.

Jay Haley, a Grand Forks engineer who is one of the state's leading wind advocates and consultants, said he personally knows of unannounced projects totaling more than 1,000 megawatts now under development in North Dakota.

"What I mean is, there's money changing hands," meaning wind developers are leasing land or hiring consultants in an effort to get projects off the ground, Haley said.

Now, with competitive incentives in place and the establishment of a state transmission authority to help utilities and wind developers pay for costly power lines - long acknowledged as North Dakota's biggest roadblock in harnessing its winds - the stage is set for explosive growth, Haley said.

"Honestly, within five years you'll see at least 2,000 megawatts, and in 10 years - who knows? Maybe 5,000 megawatts" of added wind capacity, he said.

A key turning point in spurring wind development came in 2000 when legislators slashed property taxes for wind-generation equipment by two-thirds, from 10 percent to 3 percent, Haley said. It has since been cut in half, to 1.5 percent, to remain competitive with neighboring states, and the regulatory process has been streamlined.

Four years ago, the state's first major wind farms - adjacent projects with combined capacity of more than 60 megawatts - were built near Edgeley and Kulm in south-central North Dakota.

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Those projects were a signal to the wind industry, which earlier had found resistance to wind development, that the state was prepared to support the industry, Haley said. Both projects were developed by FPL Energy, the world's leading wind developer.

"I think this really is a new era for wind," Haley said. "I think we've finally reached a turning point. I'm really thrilled with what I'm seeing happen today. It's been a long, hard battle."

North Dakota was slow to develop its wind resource because it's a major coal-producing state, he said, but rural areas have discovered that wind turbines bring money.

For 25 years, landowners in the Edgeley-Kulm area will collect $165,000 a year in lease payments - about $4,000 per wind tower. Economic activity related to construction created the equivalent of 200 full-time jobs for one year, Haley said, and schools receive $252,000 a year in property taxes.

John Dunlop, an engineer for the American Wind Energy Association in the Twin Cities, said Minnesota's renewable energy standard - 25 percent of its energy must come from renewable sources by 2025 - benefits North Dakota.

"The law will be a market driver for both transmission and wind development in North Dakota," he said.

Minnesota's renewable standard law, passed this year, will require 5,000 to 6,000 megawatts of clean energy. So far, wind power is the most viable renewable source of electricity - and North Dakota's wind is much cheaper than Minnesota's to develop, Dunlop said.

"It's not possible to absolutely quantify it because it's such a range," he said. "There are so many variables. But from everything I've seen, the best sites (in North Dakota) have to be 15 percent better than the best sites in Minnesota."

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To date, North Dakota's wind development has been disappointing to wind advocates, Dunlop said. But they're looking closely to see what happens.

"You're just sitting on a gold mine of a wind energy resource," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

Graphic: Powering North Dakota

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