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Transmission for community wind -- Bold plan for upstart developer

Half of an ambitious new plan by Outland Renewable Energy calls for construction of a 240-kilometre transmission line to bring as much as 3000 MW of locally owned wind power from the busy Buffalo Ridge area of south-western Minnesota to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul by 2012. The other half of the plan is for Outland to fill the wires with generation from its own wind plant.

The Minnesota-based company intends to build the privately funded double-circuit 345 kV line with the purpose of moving Outland's locally owned output to the state's main load centre. The company wants 1500 MW of the Minnesota Independence Line to be operational before 2010 and expects its projects to produce enough juice to take up the entire line. "When it gets built -- and we're very confident it will -- we will have the generation to fill that line," says Outland's Dan Rustowicz, formerly of John Deere Wind Energy. "The reality is that we have an opportunity to expand in very quick fashion."

Only a few years ago Outland was a small group of farmers intent on owning a single wind project. The company now maintains a development pipeline that includes Iowa, Illinois and Texas in addition to Minnesota. It is also trying to ramp itself up as a third-party wind plant operations and maintenance provider. A recent infusion of cash from Allco Renewable Energy Group, a New York financial player, is helping turn Outland into a major regional player.

Feast time

"It's feast time right now in the wind space," Rustowicz says. "We're going to have turbines spinning long before that line gets built. Including the transmission build-out, we are talking about close to four billion bucks."

In addition to giving lump-sum easement payments to landowners along the new transmission line corridor, Outland will offer those same landowners the option of investing in its wind projects. "Most landowners with a high-voltage transmission line sited on their property don't have an opportunity to invest in the wind projects and receive ongoing payments from the generation," says Outland's Ingrid Bjorklund. "We haven't worked out the complete details of whether the generation and the transmission would be part of one [limited liability company] or whether we would separate it. But we have another year or so to work out those details."

Buffalo Ridge, long a prime area for Minnesota wind power production, is beset by a series of problems stemming from the current lack of adequate transmission capacity, including an overstuffed transmission queue, periodic curtailment of output from existing turbines and an overall project logjam. More capacity on the wires is vital to Minnesota's legislative effort to reach 25% in green electricity by 2025.

Further, the state's 2005 Community-Based Energy Development (C-BED) statute was designed to bring 800 MW of locally owned projects onto the grid by 2010. Outland's plans call for the full transmission project to be completed by 2012 -- the same year the state intends to hit a 12% benchmark for renewable energy on its way to the 2025 target.

"It all looks like a very intriguing idea," says Lisa Daniels of Windustry, a non-profit proponent of locally owned wind development in Minnesota. "But people have tried to do this in the past and make it pencil out. Nobody's been successful."

Outland, which announced a turbine purchase of 200 MW from Siemens in December, expects 50 MW of its 180 MW Summit Wind Farm, a community owned project near Buffalo Ridge, to be operational this summer. In all, the company has in excess of 6000 MW in various stages of development and also anticipates expansion into the western US.

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