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Developer links real estate, renewable energy

Minnesota real estate developer Craig Fink is making his first foray into alternative energy with the Hartland Wind Farm project near Minot, N.D. The $15 billion effort would have capacity to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity. (Photo by Bill Klotz)

Minnesota real estate developer Craig Fink is making his first foray into alternative energy with the Hartland Wind Farm project near Minot, N.D. The $15 billion effort would have capacity to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity. (Photo by Bill Klotz)

By Dan Haugen
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — Craig Fink is all about making the right connections.

“I look at putting together strike teams, bringing in the right partners on each individual project, and working together toward mutually beneficial goals,” Fink said. “It’s almost like a game. It’s all about putting the right team together to score the touchdown and get the deal done.”

The Minnesota real estate developer’s latest “strike team” is working toward scoring renewable energy history, trying to build a $15 billion wind farm and transmission project near Minot, N.D.

Hartland Wind Farm would have capacity to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity, making it the largest wind farm in the United States — although it could be surpassed in size before it’s completed. A first phase calls for putting up 333 wind turbines by as early as 2010, with a second phase planned to double that number.

The project is the first foray into alternative energy for the Denali Cos., the retail, commercial and lakes-area real estate firm Fink founded about a decade ago in Baxter, Minn.

Fink said real estate is “in his blood” and is something he will always do, but he’s among a crop of developers learning about the significant overlap between real estate and renewable energy.

One of the most important pieces of any wind or solar project is securing access to the right land. And in Fink’s case, he credits “divine intervention” for planting his cowboy boots in the right place.

After researching wind opportunities for years, Fink learned just a couple of years ago that the family of another Denali principal, Curt Johnson, owns 160 acres of land in wind-rich North Dakota.

“We had access to land in an area with one of the highest wind resources in the world,” Fink said.

Fink found energy expertise in a former high school classmate and college roommate, Dan Hudson, who is president and principal owner of a Houston energy company called Montgomery Power.

On a visit home by Hudson, the two caught up on the previous decade and got down to talking about the wind farm idea. Hudson’s partners in Houston like the plan, and soon the companies had agreed to jointly develop Hartland Wind Farm, with Montgomery handling the energy and turbine aspects and Denali managing the land issues.

“I didn’t even realize at that time how similar wind-farm development was to real-estate development,” Fink said. “The procurement of the land, the entitlement, the environmental process, working with engineers, local politicians, stakeholders — that’s what we’d been doing at Denali for a number of years, and so it was second nature for us.”

Developers also seek to incorporate a natural gas development by Montgomery Power’s parent company, Navasota Energy Partners, which would provide electricity even when the wind isn’t blowing.

The wind farm won’t be feasible without a way of getting the electricity to customers, and so last year Fink called one of the nation’s largest electricity distributors, American Electric Power in Columbus, Ohio. Several hours of meetings later, the companies had a memorandum of understanding to co-develop a transmission “superhighway” that would carry electricity from Hartland to Chicago.

Denali has a land team that regularly visits the Dakotas and so far has secured access to more than 100,000 acres of land for wind developments. The company’s small-town, Midwest roots has been an asset throughout.

“We’re just regular people,” Fink said. “That’s one of the advantages we have in building wind farms. We’re all from the Upper Midwest. Our grandfathers were all farmers. We understand the rural economy.”

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