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Community wind limps along -- Grounds for hope

Small wind projects sponsored by local communities are still struggling to gain traction in the frenzied American market, but proponents hope to breathe some life into the movement by sowing new seeds in New York, a state far removed from community wind's traditional forefront. "We want to bring community wind out of the Midwest," says Lisa Daniels of Windustry, a Minnesota group that carries the movement's flag.

The group is organising a community wind conference in Albany, the capital city of New York, in April. "New York seemed like a good place to cover the Northeast and we're holding it in Albany so that legislators can easily come to the conference," she says.

Support for community wind has traditionally been strong in Minnesota, where state policies provide specific incentives. But progress has been slow. The state began 2007 with 275 MW of the nation's 421 MW in installed community-owned projects and by mid-year expected to see another 300 MW on line by now. But Minnesota's actual 2007 tally will be closer to 72 MW, says Daniels.

Community wind advocates say the deck is stacked against community development in an industry where major players lock up land and equipment years in advance. "There's not only a land grab and a turbine grab, there also a transmission queue grab going on," Daniels says. "Big business has deeper pockets to lock up more of the queue positions than the smaller players. The system is being gamed and people enter one project multiple times, taking up different queue slots and selling some of them."

The Albany event might help. "We're hoping for a good transfer of information," Daniels says. "There needs to be more diversity in the ownership and local control of renewable energy projects. We would like to provide technical assistance and some experts who have actually built projects and have them talk about what it actually takes to put a community wind project together."

Windustry's conference collaborator is the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), an organisation that implements New York's ambitious green energy mandate in a state with next to no community-owned wind projects. The authority's Vicki Colello says interest in community wind is strong in the state. "But we really haven't had anything to offer in terms of financial models or business models."

Colello says NYSERDA gets calls from townspeople and city officials who are mostly against large wind installations. "But they could live with a community energy type of arrangement -- maybe six turbines that they own where the electricity stays in their town," she says. "People don't really like the idea of looking at turbines when they're not getting the benefits of the electricity produced by those turbines."

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