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North Dakota looks to take advantage of its rare air

Edgeley, N.D. here's a new harvest taking place on the North Dakota prairie this fall. Look to the western horizon here and see 41 glistening white pinwheels turning on the Coteau Ridge, capturing the breeze with swinging arms and spinning it int...

Edgeley, N.D.

here's a new harvest taking place on the North Dakota prairie this fall.

Look to the western horizon here and see 41 glistening white pinwheels turning on the Coteau Ridge, capturing the breeze with swinging arms and spinning it into electricity that's shipped out on high-voltage lines.

The wind turbines -- each securely bolted to the top of 41, 213-foot, North Dakota-made towers -- compose the state's first two commercial-scale wind farms.

The projects were built with a $65 million investment by FPL Energy of Juno, Fla. They represent the first swing at what could become a huge cash crop for North Dakota. Or, they could stand for years as a testament to what could have been, had North Dakota had the political clout and will to find a way to export its plentiful natural resource.

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"We need to be a leader on this in the country," said North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven.

The combined 61.5 megawatt capacity of the two new North Dakota wind farms creates enough electricity to meet the energy needs of 21,000 typical North Dakota homes.

That's just a spark compared to the supercharged current that could be generated if North Dakota could fully harness its legendary winds.

Brad Stevens, an engineer with the Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, said one of the center's anemometers at Lehr, N.D., recorded an average wind speed of 18 mph over the last two years, with some 10-minute sustained winds approaching 60 mph and one 10-minute sustained reading of 89 mph.

"Most of North Dakota's winds are frontal driven, which is why developers like them," Stevens said. "They come in, they blow, they go away. They're not such a turbulent phenomenon."

However, transmission of electricity and lack of access to major markets must be addressed before North Dakota can reap the benefits of its wind, according to experts in the field.

North Dakota State Rep. Scot Kelsh, D-Fargo, said North Dakota faces formidable challenges in transmission. Two-thirds of the electric energy generated in the state -- most of it from coal-fired plants -- is exported to the east. As a result, he said, most lines heading that direction are near capacity.

"Transmission is an issue for any resource in North Dakota," said Stevens. The EERC is working with the Department of Energy to create the Plains Organization for Wind Energy Resources at UND. "The fact is, we have a tremendous, untapped resource here," Stevens said.

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Huff, puff potential

"My gut feeling is that, at least initially, it's going to be slow," said Kim Christianson, energy programs manager for the state Department of Commerce. "The thing about North Dakota, is we do have the best wind resources. And developers know that."

With advances in technology, he said, North Dakota has the potential for a large wind farm in the near future -- one on the scope of up to 500 megawatts, or more than five times the capacity of what was built west of here this summer.

Hoeven has charged the North Dakota State Industrial Commission with addressing the transmission issue. As the nation's 6th ranked state in terms of energy generation, he said, North Dakota has to upgrade or create new transmission systems -- not just for wind energy, but for the export of electricity generated by the state's lignite coal industry.

"Transmission is the number one focus for building clean-coal power plants," Hoeven said.

Robert Harms, a special assistant attorney general for the commission, has been appointed chairman of the newly formed Upper Great Plains Transmission Coalition, which is looking for ways to get more North Dakota electricity flowing on the nation's electrical grids.

"We just don't have sufficient capacity to move large-scale amounts of electricity out of the region -- and it's not just North Dakota. It's South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, too," Harms said.

FPL Energy successfully brought its two wind farms onto the grid by tapping into existing power lines. The wind development company came to North Dakota at the behest of Basin Electric Power Cooperative of Bismarck, N.D., and Otter Tail Power Co. of Fergus Falls, Minn.

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"One thing about wind -- you always know what the fuel price is going to be," said Kurt Beichel, project manager for FPL Energy on the projects. FPL owns the wind energy transmission system, including the towers and turbines built on land leased from area farmers.

Expert in the field

FPL Energy knows wind. It is a subsidiary owned by FPL Group, a publicly traded $8 billion conglomerate whose best-known holding is Florida Power & Light, an electrical company serving 8 million customers in Florida.

FPL Energy is the nation's leader in wind energy. It owns and operates 30 wind farms in 10 states.

John DiDonato, project director for FPL Energy, said the North Dakota farms should prove to be the most efficient the company has ever built.

"This should be the highest-producer, in terms of output from wind, that we have," he said. Typically, a wind farm performs at about 30 percent of capacity. DiDonato said the North Dakota farms are projected to perform at greater than 50 percent capacity.

Wind towers comprising the two North Dakota FPL Energy projects dot 5,000 rolling, pothole-filled acres south of North Dakota Highway 13 west of Edgeley toward Kulm.

The projects are known as North Dakota Wind Energy I and North Dakota Wind Energy II.

Electricity generated by the 27 North Dakota Wind Energy I power towers will be purchased under a 25-year contract by Basin Electric Power Cooperative. Wind energy is carried out of the area by Central Power, a regional line cooperative.

Basin Electric is a consumer- owned regional power cooperative supplying power to 124 rural electric cooperatives, serving 1.7 million customers, in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado and New Mexico.

Otter Tail Power Co. buys the electricity generated by the 14 towers of North Dakota Wind II towers, which are situated south of the North Dakota I towers.

Otter Tail provides electricity and energy services to 250,000 people in western Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. The power company built a 12-mile transmission line along Highway 13 connecting a new substation at the wind farm to an existing Otter Tail power line through Edgeley.

Gusts of summer

North Dakota earned its reputation as the nation's leader in wind development potential in a 1991 study by Pacific Northwest Laboratory. But reputation alone hasn't brought wind development to the state.

Texas, ranked second in potential in that study, is the nation's leader in wind energy power production. North Dakota neighbor Minnesota, ranked ninth in the same study, is fourth with more than 300 megawatts of production.

Most of those towers stand along a 10-mile stretch in the Buffalo Ridge area in southwest Minnesota, near Lake Benton and Pipestone.

North Dakota, with it's relatively flat terrain and legendary lack of trees, is a wind gust's dream.

North Dakota pioneers recognized this, and in the early 1900s erected windmills to pump water for farms and ranches. That was about the extent of wind energy in the state until recently, as one- and two-tower demonstration projects popped up here and there.

Wind resources are classified on a number system from one to seven, with seven being the most windy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, North Dakota alone has enough land classified four and higher to supply 36 percent of the electricity needs of the lower 48 states.

"Of course, it would be impractical to move electricity everywhere from North Dakota," the department notes on its Wind Energy Program Web site.

Show us the money

As long as the wind is untapped, so, too, is its economic potential. The Kulm and Edgeley wind tower farms will generate an estimated $277,000 in new property tax revenue annually. Most of the towers are built within the Kulm School District.

"It will be a good source of revenue for us -- you bet," said Dan Bauer, Kulm superintendent of schools. How much the district will get toward its $1.75 million annual budget is unclear, he said, "but obviously it will have an impact on us."

Dennis Anderson, president of the Coteau Hills Wind Energy LLC, formed three years ago to promote wind, said that on average, more than 100 workers a day were employed in the area this summer on wind farm construction jobs. FPL Energy will permanently employ five people to operate the two wind farms.

According to FPL Energy, annual salaries for the four wind tower technician jobs will range from $25,000 to $40,000. Bismarck State College will add wind tower maintenance to its coal power plant technology curriculum next year, according to school president Donna Thigpen.

Randall Swisher, executive director for the American Wind Energy Association, said jobs and new business inevitably sprout where wind towers are planted.

"There's a whole industry that develops around wind," Swisher said. "There are components, services and supplies elements that are needed."

Bryan Morlock, manager of resource planning for Otter Tail Power, said power company studies of North Dakota's wind energy potential since the 1991 Pacific Northwest study show even more promise for development.

"In North Dakota, the higher you go, the more the wind increases," he said. "I think in general, you'll be seeing much bigger and taller machines being erected in North Dakota."

Otter Tail, as a Minnesota-based company must meet that Minnesota's requirement that it make a good-faith effort toward getting at least 10 percent of its power from renewable energy sources by the year 2010.

It can only meet a portion of that percentage through hydro power from its Fergus Falls dam and power generated through the burning of ag waste at its Big Stone plant at Milbank, S.D., Morlock said.

It made sense for Otter Tail to team up with an experienced wind producer such as FPL Energy, he said. "All we are doing is buying the power. We have no plans to own wind energy operations. It is an extremely complex business."

Otter Tail didn't need access to a giant wind farm to get into the wind energy generation game. With its largely rural customer base -- composed of communities experiencing little or no population growth -- Otter Tail's need for new energy sources are limited, Morlock said.

Morlock said the project would not have been financially feasible without the federal 1.8-cent-per-kilowatt tax break the project gets for a 10-year period.

"We have to justify the cost to the consumer," Morlock said. "Wind is still more expensive than other sources of power. Without federal and state incentives, there's no way it can compete."

As a rule of thumb, construction costs for wind-powered electric generators are considerably higher than those of fossil fuel plants, on a per-megawatt basis.

According to FPL Energy, it costs about of $1 million per megawatt to develop a wind farm. The 18-turbine-system the company built to provide power to Otter Tail, for example, cost $18 million. A coal-fired plant with the same capacity could be built for $12.6 million, or about $700,000 per megawatt.

Remember, however, that wind facilities, once constructed, have no fuel costs. Wind is free. The only costs associated with operation are for regular maintenance.

On the horizon

Wind technology is advancing at a rate that could make it competitive without incentives, Morlock said. Already, companies such as General Electric are making larger and larger turbines, while companies like DMI Industries of West Fargo are scrambling to figure out how to build taller towers.

The larger the turbine, the taller the tower.

"Each year they get taller," said Steven Wenzel, business development consultant for DMI Industries. "Even last year, there were few 1.5-megawatt turbines. This year they're all 1.5 megawatts. Next year, we'll see 2 megawatts and larger."

Xcel Energy is also looking at North Dakota as a potential wind farm site. The company, which serves Fargo, West Fargo and Grand Forks in our area, already has wind farms in Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Texas. Renewable energy, including wind and hydro power, currently constitutes 2 percent of the company's energy portfolio.

Price Hatcher, Xcel Energy manager of renewable power purchases, says the company first became involved with wind power in 1993, signing contracts for power from Minnesota's Buffalo Ridge,

Xcel Energy currently has 790 megawatts of wind capacity on its system and has plans to add another 450 megawatts by the end of 2008, Hatcher says.

He says the company has requested proposals for development of 80 megawatts in either Texas, New Mexico or Kansas. Hatcher said he is negotiating with a developer for 12 megawatts of wind power from North Dakota.

Urban centers such as Minneapolis-St. Paul could use power generated by North Dakota wind, Hatcher said. But until transmission capacity out of the state is upgraded, it's tough to justify building a large wind farm in North Dakota, he said.

"I'm not actively looking for more wind energy from North Dakota," Hatcher said. "Transmission constraints are a problem."

DiDonato is more confident transmission issues can be overcome. The FPL Energy executive says he expects to be flying to North Dakota from his Florida home more in the coming few years.

FPL Energy has already opened a permanent office on main street in Edgeley. Look for the windmill on the sign.

"The ridge here can certainly support more turbines," he says. "Once we establish a foothold -- a base camp if you will -- it's a natural for us to add megawatts."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Gerry Gilmour at (701) 241-5560

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