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Ranch owner gets a good idea -- Arizona's first wind plant

An enterprising private landowner, who used his own money and a few good ideas to get the ball rolling, will see Arizona's first commercial wind plant built next year by Iberdrola Renewables. Power from the Dry Lake Wind Project of about 60 MW will be bought by Salt River Project (SRP), American's third largest public utility.

Bill Elkins, owner of a 18,500 hectare ranch near the east-central Arizona city of Snowflake, got his inspiration for the wind project about five years ago while visiting a landowning uncle in New Mexico around the time that FPL Energy was finishing its 204 MW New Mexico Wind Energy Center. The FPL project, which cut across the uncle's land, gave Elkins an idea. "We toured it and the terrain looked very similar to ours," Elkins says. "That's how I got interested. Then my uncle gave me some thoughts and opinions on what to do and what not to do."

Elkins borrowed a pair of meteorological towers from Northern Arizona University to begin collecting wind data. Then he bought another pair of towers and -- in a key decision- -- got the project into the transmission interconnection queue. "We put up our own money," Elkins says. "So there was a risk involved. But it looks like it's going to pay off."

Elkins accomplished his main goal of eliminating a middleman from grabbing a share of the take. Even so, he eventually found himself in need of serious assistance. "At a certain point he realised he was getting in kind of deep and spending more money than he really wanted to risk," says Iberdrola's Jan Johnson of Elkins. "He decided it was time to bring in somebody with more experience developing wind farms. That's where we came in."

Checkerboard

Elkins hopes for more than half of about 30 turbines to be sited on his land, but a considerable amount of the project will use state land in addition to federal land under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

"That whole area of Arizona is all a checkerboard," says BLM's Diane Drobka, referring to a mix of state, private and federal land. BLM, as the project's lead permitting agency, performed environmental impact studies for the entire project and received approval from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "It wouldn't be smart to do it any other way," Drobka says. "Because otherwise you'd wind up having power lines that were zigzagging, trying to hit all private land or all state land or all federal land. That wouldn't make any logical sense at all."

BLM is becoming an increasingly important part of the wind farm siting process, says Iberdrola's Johnson. "BLM is hugely important to this project. They are not only a landowner but also a permitting entity and we couldn't do the project without them. We have other applications pending with BLM in western states, especially California."

Iberdrola, which has not yet chosen a turbine maker for the project, will build Dry Lake to take advantage of existing power lines. "Being able to tap into lines that we already have is a big cost saving," says SRP's John Coggins. SRP's 20-year power purchase agreement with Iberdrola will help the utility reach its goal of 15% generation from renewable energy by 2025. "We compared that to going outside the state, going farther away and having to build new transmission. When you look at the overall economics, it certainly works out better to do it closer in and use those existing lines." The utility has right of first refusal if Iberdrola adds another phase to Dry Lake within three years.

SRP currently has a five-year off-take agreement for 50 MW of wind power from a New Mexico project. That deal concludes at year end, but a similar agreement for 50 MW from a different supplier is expected to replace it. "Dry Lake is the first long term agreement we've signed for wind," says Coggins. "But I wouldn't expect, at least for the next few years, to see wind becoming a larger percentage of our portfolio. We want to get some more experience with it."

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