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Is this a last gasp for Big Stone Wind?

Diamond Wind Energy LLC. in Atwater uses a 20-kilowatt Jacob's turbine to tap wind near Diamond Lake. A group of investors would like to erect large turbines to capture 20 megawatts of wind power in Big Stone County. Tribune photo by Bill Zimmer

ORTONVILLE -- For Big Stone Wind, being at the cutting edge for community-owned wind power might bring the unkindest cut of all.

The Big Stone County group is on the verge of axing its plans for a 20-megawatt wind farm. It was to be owned entirely by land owners and residents of the county. If the project goes forward, it will more likely be in partnership with another company, and not as the community-owned project originally hoped by its nearly 100 investors.

A letter expressing these points, and his indignation over the causes, was recently sent by Big Stone Wind board member and organizer Brent Olson to the entity that oversees the regional transmission grid.

"This could be the last, faint gasp,'' Olson said of the letter he sent to the Midwest Independent System Operator or MISO.

Olson blames the possible demise of the community wind power project on the high costs of completing the engineering studies required to access the electrical transmission grid, and to what he charges is Otter Tail Power's unwillingness to support community owned wind.

"Disheartening,'' he said.

Big Stone Wind investors were stunned to learn last month that a study to look at the feasibility of connecting the proposed project to the electrical transmission grid would cost over $500,000, according to Olson. Of the total, $335,000 was needed for Otter Tail Power's costs of contracting engineering for the study.

Negotiations have since led to agreements that could reduce some costs, but the reduction is not enough, according to Olson. The group of investors does not believe it can risk all of its funds on an engineering study when there is no assurance of its outcome.

He said the group is looking instead at possibly finding another party, or cutting its losses and returning most of the original investment. There is a company interested in the assets of Big Stone Wind, Olson said. Big Stone Wind has identified a good wind resource, and it has agreements with landowners to erect turbines.

Olson said the development of community-owned wind is exactly what the rural county needs: Household income in the county lags behind the rest of the state, and the population is declining and aging.

He pointed to a study that compared the economic value of community- versus corporate owned wind power in Big Stone County completed by Dr. Arne Kiuldegaard, Department of Economics, University of Minnesota, Morris. It found that community ownership offered as much as five times the economic benefits to the county, and three times the job creation potential.

Olson said Otter Tail Power should be a prospective customer and help the project along, but it is unwilling to do either. Olson said it frustrates him that Otter Tail has only invested in .2 megawatts of wind power from community based wind in Minnesota, yet is a partner with Florida Light & Power and others in large wind projects in North Dakota.

In his letter to MISO, Olson said he believes that the utility is ignoring Big Stone Wind and allowing its demise "because it can.'' "I know that we are small, poor and lack political clout, but this is wrong,'' he wrote.

The challenges faced by Big Stone Wind are not unique. "They are the leading edge of some of the issues,'' according to Mike Bull policy analyst for Wind on the Wire, a St. Paul based organization representing wind industry companies and clean energy advocates.

Bull said Big Stone Wind is running smack into the very same head wind that is holding up both community and traditional owned wind projects all across the state. It is extremely expensive to access the regional electrical transmission system. "It's a very difficult and expensive process to get on the system,'' said Bull.

It is made all the more expensive for Big Stone Wind, since Big Stone County is considered an electrically constrained area, Bull said. The transmission system is not large or flexible enough to handle large injections of power there.

Ironically, it's also a part of the state where some of the best wind resources are still to be tapped, he noted.

Bull said his group is advocating reforms of the MISO system, but ultimately the issue will depend on expanding the capacity of the regional transmission system.

The engineering study needed by Big Stone Wind involves looking at over 100 miles of transmission lines. The costs sought by Otter Tail represent its costs to hire outside engineers to do the work that is required, according to Chris Kling, public relations director for the company.

Kling said Otter Tail Power is actively adding wind power to its system, and interested in community-owned projects. However, she said the company is also obligated to find the least cost source of power for its customers. All wind projects are evaluated for their economics, no matter the type of ownership.

Olson's frustration with Otter Tail Power is shared by Aaron Peterson of Appleton, who as a state representative helped draft the Community-Based Energy Development legislation that encourages utilities to consider community owned wind projects. Peterson said he can't help but feel that Big Stone Wind is "being held hostage'' by Otter Tail Power's desire to build the Big Stone II coal-fired plant.

Otter Tail Power has encouraged wind developers to support Big Stone II, arguing that the transmission lines that would be developed for the project would include capacity to carry wind-generated power.