Minnesota group pares wind power project
Dolan Media Newswires
Minneapolis — An old gravel pit in Lyon County could end up providing metro area counties with wind power if a long-awaited plan to wire renewable energy from southwestern Minnesota to the metro area materializes.
But finding investors to help erect the tall white towers has proved difficult, and plans were scaled down significantly since rural and Twin Cities area counties established a joint committee to build up to a 150-megawatt wind farm.
“If everything would go exactly perfect, we would be breaking ground sometime next spring,” said Jay Trusty, executive director of the Southwest Regional Development Commission and member of the Rural Minnesota Energy Board.
In the wake of the 2008 financial market meltdown, perfect is a tall order.
So the original plan to build the 150-megawatt wind project to grow green jobs in rural Minnesota and sell the power to metro area energy consumers has been pared to three 1.5-megawatt wind turbines, or a total of 4.5 megawatts.
Trusty said wind supply isn’t a question for the development near Buffalo Ridge, the gusty area where many Minnesota wind farms are concentrated — so gusty, in fact, that a wind data study was not conducted to measure average velocity in at the gravel pit site. “Frankly, if you live in southwest Minnesota, the wind’s blowing,” he said.
The Rural Minnesota Energy Board, a cartel of 17 rural counties, received $200,000 in state money to study the financial, technical and legal details of the project, which has been downsized from a larger wind farm to a network of small wind farms.
“We figured we’d do a small one first, work all the bugs out and then replicate it,” said Trusty, who said only one mile of transmission line is be needed to connect the wind turbines to the power grid — a coup in the search for windy sites near high-voltage transmission lines, which add to the cost of projects.
Such control is important because the total project cost currently is less than $10 million — making the Lyon County development eligible for federal stimulus money that could halve the cost for the Rural Minnesota Energy Board to build its first wind power facility.
The seven-county Minnesota Counties Energy Task Force was formed in 1999 in response to energy sector deregulation to help ensure a reliable and affordable source of electricity and natural gas to Minnesota.
By mid-2006 energy board and task force members had formed a joint committee that envisioned wiring between 120 megawatts and 150 megawatts of renewable energy to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Assuming an average price of $2.3 million per megawatt of installed wind power, a development that size would cost between $276 million and $345 million.
But the slumping economy has slowed investment in renewable energy projects.
The current fiscal crisis has task force members, including the state’s most populous county, Hennepin County, wondering whether developing all the rural wind energy is worthwhile.
So the Rural Minnesota Energy Board is left to pass several project milestones before any wind energy is wired to metropolitan counties. Those milestones include obtaining formal approval for connecting the project to the grid from the Western Area Power Association’s Upper Great Plains office in Billings, Mont., and hoping that the wind development’s projected 7.5 percent return on investment appeals to investors.
“The political and economic climate has changed 180 degrees since we started this project,” Trusty said.