Bent Tree is big investment

Published 8:53 am Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The first phase of 200-megawatt wind farm is set to begin construction as early as 2009, and it has the potential to be a 400-megawatt wind farm. If fully completed, the Bent Tree Wind Farm would be the largest stand-alone wind farm in Minnesota.

Wind Capital Group, formed in St. Louis in 2005, is developing the project on behalf of Alliant Energy Corp., the company that will own the wind farm. Wind Capital Group scouts for possible wind farm locations, but wind is not the only factor in scouting a location. Dave Brunsvold, a project developer for Wind Capital, said it must find transmission lines suitable to transport the power to wherever it will be used. Freeborn County had wind and lines.

Alliant Energy has filed the paperwork with both Minnesota and Wisconsin, because the power will go to Wisconsin to Alliant Energy’s subsidiary Wisconsin Power & Light Co. Brunsvold said this makes more sense than building in Wisconsin because Minnesota is windier.

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According to Dan Dorman, executive director of the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency, if the project is completed to 400 megawatts, it would be one of the largest capital investments ever in Freeborn County. The project would still be a large investment even it remains at 200 megawatts.

“Right now, Alliant Energy is planning to develop 200 megawatts of wind energy at Bent Tree Wind Farm. A decision regarding the development of the wind farm’s additional 200 megawatts has not been made at this time,” said Steve Schultz, an Alliant Energy spokesperson. “The cost for the 200 megawatts we are currently planning to develop is approximately $450 to $475 million, excluding allowance for funds used during construction.”

Schultz said the company hopes to begin construction in 2009 on the first 200 megawatts and the turbines could be up and running as early as 2010.

According to Schultz, 400 megawatts is about enough to power 100,000 homes over the course of a year. Schultz said Alliant Energy has not yet made a decision to build or not build the second 200 megawatts.

Schultz said the turbines will be between 1.5 and 2.5 megawatts each but will be modeled as if they were using 1.65 megawatts, which for the first 200 megawatts would mean between 80 and 120 turbines. The turbines, once erected, will be 400 feet tall from the top of the turbine blade when straight in the air to the ground.

The turbines will be in the Manchester and Hartland area along Minnesota Highway 13.

Wind Capital Group will work with the general contractor to ensure the project is developed according to their site plan. According to Brunsvold, Vestes, the Danish company selling the turbines, will likely choose the general contractor. This general contractor will not be from Freeborn County because more specialized methods are used during construction, including the need for a crane that takes 18 semi loads to move the components. But other opportunities will be available to local businesses.

“During construction, you’re going to see 100 to 150 people working on the project, and they’re going to be stopping in convenience stores and buying gas and staying in local motels or local campgrounds,” said Brunsvold. “I’m sure there’ll be a lot of people who come in who are more experienced, but they’ll also be hiring local people from the area as general laborers. They’ll probably be using local contractors for things like rock and tiling, hauling in all the cement. It’s a huge impact during construction.”

Dorman also said people often see projects like this occurring outside the city limits of Albert Lea or their township and assume it will not affect them. This is not the case. The Bent Tree Wind Farm will, however, have a significant impact on county taxes, which, according to Dorman, are the largest portion of most people’s property taxes.

“The construction side of it is probably more visible, because everybody can see it,” said Dorman. “That’s an important part of it but it’s more of a spike because it’s a couple-year deal. … In the long run, while it isn’t as visible because you don’t see the cement trucks and concrete trucks running around, it’s about a million dollars in tax revenue plus about a million dollars in rent payments to those landowners, with the inflationary escalators in there year after year. … That’s a significant amount of revenue.”

According to Dorman, both phases of the project being completed would add a tax base equal to adding about six malls or about 40 industrial buildings.

“The benefit is that taxes will either go down or not increase as much as they would,” Dorman said. “When you see new buildings being constructed, that spreads the tax burden. The best property tax relief program is to create more property tax base through new construction not just inflation but new construction because it spreads that burden out to more and more properties.”

Dorman said this project does not pose significant costs to Freeborn County, and the county did not offer any form of tax incentives for the project. While the project will not cost the county, Brunsvold said it will benefit the county in ways other than taxes.

“We’re looking at adding in the neighborhood of $1 million to $1.5 million a year in new property tax revenue to the county,” said Brunsvold. “We’re looking at a stream of payments to landowners for the easement payments. We’re looking at potentially a $3 million boost — annually — to the county in one way or another.”

Along with the boost to taxes and easement payments, Schultz said the wind farm could create as many as 30 jobs and an office will be built somewhere in Freeborn County.

Why Freeborn County?

“We’re in the process of securing land agreements,” said Schultz. “Once we get all that taken care of, where we have the agreements and we have all the regulatory approvals, the construction process can start with the foundations for the turbines, the access roads. Establishing the cable installation, the underground cable installation the various turbine sites, once you get all that — foundations and the access roads and all that stuff established — then the actual turbine erection will start.”

Getting a project of this magnitude into the construction stage is no easy task. Brunsvold said only about one in five envisioned wind farm projects is actually built because there are so many potential stumbling blocks in finding and developing a site.

“Of course, we’re looking for wind resource, but one of the most critical components is transmission lines,” said Brunsvold. “So we need to find a transmission line that’s suitable or large enough to carry a project to the market place, which may mean shipping the power to Chicago or Minneapolis, somewhere out of our local area. We need to find lines that are already in existence that aren’t running at full capacity. As each project is being built, we’re using up some of that excess capacity and that’s getting to make this even more of a challenge.”

According to Brunsvold, wind resource is not as crucial as it once was because of improvements in wind turbine technology.

Despite the improvements in technology, wind capital has set up two meteorological towers to test the proposed site’s wind: one west of Manchester and one north of Hartland. Brunsvold said the data from those towers has confirmed information from Minnesota wind maps and information from other consulting firms that point to wind favorable for a wind farm.

“There’s better wind to the west and so southwestern Minnesota was developed first, but now they’ve used up most of the transmission,” said Brunsvold. “What developers are doing is we’re starting to slowly go east, but we’re trying to stay in as good a wind regime as we can. That’s why we’re looking here.”

But wind resource and transmission lines are not the only stumbling blocks. Another stumbling block is willingness within the community, something Brusnvold said has not been a problem. Wind Capital is currently setting up easement agreements with landowners.

“It’s an easement agreement; it’s very similar to a lease,” Brunsvold said. “What we do is establish an easement so we’ll have the right to be able to go onto their property. Once the project is built, then easement is essentially narrowed down to the pad site where the turbine is located and access roads.”

According to Brunsvold, the pad site for each tower is about a third to half an acre — about 50 feet diameter and landowners can farm right up to the edge of the site.

Currently, Brunsvold said they have signed up 25,000 acres of land and the envisioned project could encompass as much 32,000 acres with as many as 150 landowners involved. But for a number of reasons, not all of the landowners involved will participate. These numbers are not as large as they may look.

“We have to space these turbines far enough away so each get a full cut at the wind,” Brunsvold said. “Minnesota has some pretty significant wind rights stipulations. Say on a 160-acre farm, we may only be able to put two turbines, and we can’t put any more on there because we need to have them spaced far enough apart.”

Brunsvold said the response from landowners is typically good because it is an extra source of income without giving up too much farmland, but that does not mean there are not still concerns.

“From the farmers’ standpoint, the landowners’ standpoint, three things are important to them,” Brunsvold said. “Where we place the turbines and how we construct the access road so it won’t impede their farming. How we lay out the turbines and how we lay out the access roads is important to the landowners. Another thing is tile. Most of this ground has been tiled out. So how we run the cable from one turbine to the next and how we impact this is usually a critical concern. From a county standpoint, they’re going to be concerned that we’re bringing in a lot of heavy equipment and we’re going to be on their roads. What’s the impact going to be for their roads and highways? We want to keep the things in as good or better condition than before.”

With landowners, Wind Capital is setting up easement agreements similar to leases that are typically 30- to 50-year agreements. At the end of the set period, there are a number of possibilities.

“It’s possible that the owner of the project wants to re-turbine them, put up new blades,” said Brunsvold. “They would have to go back to the landowners and negotiate new ongoing leases. If it comes to an end and they’re going to shut it down, then they’re required to remove the turbines and essentially restore the grounds to the previous conditions. They’ll bust down the top four feet of the concrete and put dirt down over it so they can farm the ground as they did before the turbines were installed.”

Even with the scale of wind projects, Brunsvold said in his experience he has not been a part of a similar project with a public reception as strong as wind farms.

“I’ve been in the economic-development arena now for 14 years, and I’ve worked on a variety of different kinds of development projects, and I’ve never worked on anything that had more overall acceptance than wind farms,” said Brunsvold. “They have a high level of acceptance. I think people in America realize that we have some real issues with energy and where we’re going to get our power.”

For some, the obstructed view can be an issue.

“Even when there are people who are opposed to the project, they usually will say, ‘I don’t want to look out my picture window at a turbine. I don’t want one on my farm, but I understand why we need them in America.’”