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By Kelly Smith and Helmut Schmidt, Published October 14 2009

Fargo school, park officials decide against wind turbine

Fargo school and park officials are letting a potential wind turbine project blow by.

The Fargo School Board and Fargo Park Board both unanimously voted Tuesday to drop the project.

“A single wind turbine in today’s economy is not financially feasible,” said Dan Huffman, assistant superintendent of business services for Fargo Public Schools. “The revenue coming back from a tower that size doesn’t really cover your upfront costs.”

Both boards agreed to pursue the project in June 2007 when it was still envisioned as a partnership between the Fargo and West Fargo school districts and a “no cost” way of participating in a renewable energy project funded with federal Clean Renewal Energy Bonds.

“Sounded like a good idea at the time,” School Board member Laura Carley said.

In the past two years, the park district and school district went as far as to negotiate a land lease agreement with a potential tenant for the turbine, Huffman said.

Jim Larson, the park district’s director of finance and human relations, said the park district paid a few thousand dollars in a shared-cost agreement with the school district to hire an electrical engineer to study the project.

As originally pitched, the $2.5 million in bonds were to finance construction of a 500- to 600-kilowatt wind turbine. Sales of electricity were to cover the debt and costs of operation, and provide a profit in later years, Larson said.

The market and economics of wind power have changed markedly in the two years, Larson said. The price paid for electricity dropped, and that gave the advantage to groups that could put up “farms” of wind towers, he said.

He added that other unanticipated investments would be needed, such as $110,000 to install a distribution line and $250,000 to upgrade an electrical substation to accept the turbine’s power.

And the West Fargo School District recently backed out of the project.

“Money is an overriding factor … there are probably other needs in the School District,” West Fargo Business Manager Joe Sykora said.

Without West Fargo, the Fargo school and park districts would together need to invest $1.66 million over the first 17 years, according to figures released by Larson. They wouldn’t see positive cash flow until after 17 years of its 25-year expected service life.

The School District is still exploring future “green” efforts, Huffman said. “If we’re going to commit resources ... to energy conservation, we feel we’re better controlling our demand side of the equation.”

Readers can reach Forum reporters Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515 and Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583