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Published November 11 2004

Xcel wants to increase electricity production from wind energy

PIERRE, S.D. - Four South Dakota counties could figure prominently in a Minneapolis-based power company's plans to expand its production of electricity from wind energy.

Xcel Energy wants to produce another 3,100 megawatts of electricity by 2019 to meet a growing demand for power in Minnesota. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to make a decision on the plan within a year.

Along with increased generation of electricity from traditional fuels such as coal and extending the life of its nuclear power plants, Xcel's proposal would boost its current 467 megawatts of wind power to 1,700 megawatts.

Xcel now buys electricity from a wind-farm complex in the Buffalo Ridge area near Lake Benton, Minn.

Buffalo Ridge has the largest concentration of wind turbines in the nation, with about 25 individual wind farms and more than 600 turbines capable of 500 megawatts.

A new study commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Commerce said the cost of adding 1,100 megawatts of wind energy into the Xcel power grid by 2010 would be "quite modest."

The study focused on building 734 more wind turbines in parts of southwestern Minnesota and northeastern South Dakota, including 67 each in Brookings and Deuel counties, and 33 turbines each in Grant and Roberts counties in South Dakota.

Lincoln and Pipestone counties in Minnesota now share 532 wind turbines, and the study focused on adding 99 in Lincoln County, 35 in Pipestone County, 100 in Mower and Murray counties, 157 in Nobles County and 33 in Rock County.

Xcel would not build the wind farms. It would contract to buy the power from firms that install the turbines.

Bob Sahr, South Dakota Public Utilities Commission chairman, said it makes sense to extend the Buffalo Ridge wind-farm complex.

"Conceptually, it would be very logical to not have those machines stop at the border because our wind resources are better than other states," he said. "They're going to go where the wind resources are good, and they think South Dakota has some great wind resources because otherwise I think they'd just as soon do all of this in Minnesota."

PUC analyst Steve Wegman said wind-farm developers already have preliminary easements with many Brookings, Deuel, Grant and Roberts County landowners. Several companies erect wind turbines, and any combination of them could be involved if such a project is developed, he said.

The study theorized 300 megawatts of wind energy from the four South Dakota counties, with 100 megawatts each in Brookings and Deuel counties and 50 megawatt wind farms in Grant and Roberts counties. South Dakota now has one 40 megawatt wind farm in Hyde County, in the center of the state.

County register of deeds offices confirm that several wind developers have filed options to obtain easement rights from landowners in eastern South Dakota. Some were obtained several years ago in anticipation of development, and others are more recent.

Carol Jean Mortenson, Roberts County register of deeds, has several easement options in her files. It's not surprising that wind farm developers want to build turbines in the area, she said.

"This is the obvious place to put them," Mortenson said. "I mean, what are there, three days of the year when we don't have wind?"

Leon Mack, who farms in Deuel and Codington counties, said he signed an easement option several years ago and is eager to have turbines put on his land. Farmers get annual payments from such leases.

"It sure would be a nice income, but you can't count your chickens before they hatch," Mack said. "I'm 65 years old and I'd like to see it happen before I'm gone to help the kids keep the farm going."

Xcel is committed to expanding the amount of power it gets from wind farms, said Price Hatcher, Xcel's manager of renewable energy purchases. While he could not specify if certain projects may be developed, Hatcher said it seems logical to extend wind farms into South Dakota along Buffalo Ridge.

"Given that Buffalo Ridge runs along the border and turns north, that would be a very likely place for development as the Minnesota side fills up," he said.

But expanding wind farms along the ridge depends on being able to move that additional electricity to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and other more populated cities where demand is increasing, Hatcher said.

"The real challenge is moving the energy," the Xcel official said. "The wind resource is there in South Dakota, but transmission is the challenge."

Xcel has started beefing up vital transmission links in southwestern Minnesota and into eastern South Dakota, Sahr said. Not only will that be a conduit for wind energy development in Brookings, Deuel, Grant and Roberts counties, but it also will add a better electrical hookup to the state's largest city, he said.

"There's a lot of activity going on that will allow them to help meet electrical growth needs in Sioux Falls and tap into South Dakota wind resources," he says. "We've got the wind. In six years, Xcel is saying they could have 300 megawatts in South Dakota, but this isn't a done deal yet."