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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published May 11 2010

Google may give boost to North Dakota wind industry

Last week’s announcement that Google has purchased a $38.8 million stake in two North Dakota wind farms likely will not directly impact the state’s wind industry.

But the indirect impact could provide another boost to its growing wind energy enterprise, according to North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark.

Ashtabula Wind Energy Center, which generates 169.5 megawatts of power in adjacent wind farms north of Valley City, N.D., was developed and operated by NextEra Energy Resources, based in Florida. The two wind farms can generate up to a total of 55,000 homes.

“It’s certainly generated some interest,” said Clark, whose PSC portfolio includes wind energy. “What’s interesting to me is not so much the size of the investment – it’s actually a rather small amount – it’s that it’s Google’s first foray into this industry.”

That $38.8 million is the equivalent of about 20 megawatts of power. North Dakota currently has about 1,200 megawatts of wind energy capacity in operation or under construction, more than half of that through NextEra.

Clark said Google’s investment in North Dakota also should free up capital for NextERA to make additional investments in expanding the state’s wind industry.

Google likely can profit from the federal production tax credit for wind energy through its investment, according to Clark.

“Through this $38.8 million investment, we’re aiming to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy in a way that makes good business sense, too,” Google said in its announcement.

The company also has shown an interest in the nation’s energy issues, including smart-grid technologies.

“At least from a policy standpoint, it’s been active in promoting smart-grid technology. That impacts broadband. Microsoft has done some of the same things,” Clark said.

He mentioned Microsoft Hohm, the company’s home energy and water conservation program.

The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator recently announced a three-year program to install more than 150 high-tech devices to monitor the electrical grid system 30 times per second, which is expected to help increase the grid’s efficiency and reliability.

“To reach a clean energy future, we need three things: effective policy, innovative technology and smart capital,” the Google statement said. “Through our philanthropic arm, Google.org, we’ve been pushing for energy policies that strengthen the innovation pipeline, and we’ve been dedicating resources to developing new technologies.”

In a related development, Great River Energy in Minnesota recently signed a 30-year power purchase agreement with NextEra Energy to buy 51 MW of power from Ashtabula II Wind Energy Center, located in Griggs and Steele counties.

Great River will begin receiving the power in August. For the company, based in Maple Grove, Minn., it is the first wind generation purchase in North Dakota.

Kevin Bonham is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.