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Utah set to get on the wind map -- Three projects lined up

The hard charging US wind power market has all but evaded ultra conservative Utah, where 95% of the electricity comes from coal, the population is more than 60% Mormon and installed wind power stands at less than 1 MW. But the state, which ranks 26th in the country for wind energy potential, appears ready to get in the game. Within two years Utahns are likely to be dealing with the online reality of more than 400 MW from three projects that are at varying stages along the developmental pipeline.

First up is the smallest. Wasatch Wind's 18.9 MW Spanish Fork Wind Park in Utah County, expected online by the end of the year. The biggest, at 320 MW, is the Milford Wind Project, a $400 million development set for Beaver County. The ambitious plan was announced in November by UPC Wind Management of Massachusetts and is expected to be finished by the end of 2008. Somewhere in between is Pioneer Ridge, Tasco Engineering's 73.5 MW project development, planned for Tooele County.

A variety of factors have combined to create an increasingly favourable atmosphere in Utah. But it has not happened overnight. Utah is a place where winning hearts and minds is still an arduous task. "We're working to catch up," says Sarah Wright of Utah Clean Energy. "We have two strikes against us -- extremely inexpensive power that comes from coal and no real policy support. We're a very conservative Republican state and you might think that conservative should mean conserving our resources. But it doesn't seem to mean that."

Although a renewable energy law is not on tap for the upcoming legislative session, Wright holds out hope for some kind of Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) to promote clean power a year from now. But a lapsed state-based production tax credit (PTC) could be reinstated as soon as this month. "We're working on it," she says. "And I think things are going in the right direction."

Dave Eskelsen of Rocky Mountain Power feels it is not so much lack of policy but lack of good sites for wind development that has left Utah in a backwater. "There's certainly been interest in Utah for quite a number a years," he says. "But the main reason it hasn't happened is that sites in Wyoming and the Columbia River Gorge were more attractive. There are sites in Utah that are good but they're not close enough to transmission." Rocky Mountain Power of Salt Lake City, a subsidiary of PacifiCorp, the electric utility bought last summer by Mid-American Energy Holdings, has inked power purchase agreements with the two smaller projects. Eskelsen says his company intends to remain bullish on wind in the region. "Mid-American believes it can bring 1400 MW online by 2015," he says.

Tax benefits

But nothing guarantees that Utah will take full advantage of its winds until its citizens are ready. Planting seeds of interest, a recent pair of federally funded studies by two Utah State University (USU) business professors strongly suggest that wind projects would provide a significant financial boon for schools, roads, parks and other tax-based community services, not to mention landowners, who could add to waning farm incomes by leasing their land.

"The Feds see Utah as one of the states that are stuck," says Edwin Stafford, one of the facilitators of the USU reports. "I think it's a combination of things. We don't have an RPS, we're a conservative state and we prefer markets over mandates. Most utilities have looked at what's the cheapest, and that's been coal. But I also think it's a fear of the unknown. One person at a town meeting insisted that wind turbines would blow sand around and damage crops."

Christine Mikell of Wasatch Wind understands the problems of misperception. Her company's 18.9 MW project, despite having permits, a power purchase agreement (PPA) and Suzlon turbines in hand, has faced its share of hurdles and delays.

"The environment in Utah isn't as progressive as surrounding states," Mikell says. "And, being first, we've had to break certain barriers. But we've always said that if we can get one project in the ground then the floodgates would open."

Opinion changing

UPC Wind Management, which last year completed a 30 MW wind farm project in Hawaii and a 42 MW project in Maine, has found Utah workable as it moves toward the giant 320 MW development in Milford Valley. "The project has qualities that make it a decent wind site," says the company's Ben Fairbanks. "The topography is good and the valley isn't very wide -- there's a range on each side which accelerates the wind that moves through. We have turbines lined up and the PPA is still being negotiated with a few different companies. We're in a good place and moving forward."

If things go well, Fairbanks says a second phase of 80 MW is already on the drawing board for nearby Millard County, about 200 miles south of Salt Lake City. "We've had a lot of favourable feedback," he says. "I think public opinion is changing."

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