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Will study costs take wind out of sails for Big Stone plan?

ORTONVILLE -- Investors looking to develop a 20-megawatt wind farm in Big Stone County are hoping that the costs to study what it takes to connect to the electrical transmission grid don't take the wind out of their sails.

Investors with Big Stone Wind recently learned that the $100,000 they originally provided toward the costs of engineering studies to connect their proposed wind farm to the grid is not enough.

An Oct. 16 letter from the Midwest Independent Systems Operator -- which oversees the electrical transmission grid and connections to it -- informed the group that a total of $511,348 is needed for what is known as an interconnection study.

"Simply stunning, totally unexpected and totally out of line,'' Brent Olson, chairman of the board of directors for Big Stone Wind, stated in a letter informing investors about the new requirement.

The lion's share of the study money -- $335,000 -- is sought by Otter Tail Power. It owns the transmission lines and network in closest proximity to the proposed site for the 10 wind turbines the investors intend to erect west of Artichoke Lake.

The amount sought by Otter Tail represents what it will cost the utility to hire outside engineers and complete the study as required by MISO, according to Chris Kling, a spokeswoman with the company. She said the Big Stone Wind investors have requested three distinct and different interconnection options. Engineers to be contracted by the company will analyze each option for lines owned by Otter Tail Power and Missouri River Energy Systems, as well as determine types of upgrades are needed.

It requires engineering work involving 110 miles of transmission line, she said.

The overall engineering costs are very much in line with what MISO has found in more than 125 other similar wind project proposals, according to Kling.

A 20-megawatt wind project can cost anywhere from $30 million to $50 million to develop, said Kling. In this case, the engineering costs represent roughly 1 to 1.5 percent of that amount, she added.

Olson said there are nearly private 100 investors involved in the project. They organized two years ago in hopes of tapping the county's abundant wind resources. Olson, a member of the Big Stone County Board of Commissioners, said the investors are interested in seeing wind resources developed under local ownership.

The company sold 100 shares of stock at $5,000 each to launch the project. The funds have allowed them to erect a wind monitor that has provided over a year's worth of data on the wind resource at the site. They've reached agreements with landowners for locating the turbines.

The investors also obtained engineering work on their behalf to determine the feasibility of connecting to the grid.

Olson said their engineering work indicated that adding 20 megawatts of wind power to the grid would be feasible. It would represent no more than 1 percent of the load capacity now on the Otter Tail system, he said.

Along with the costs of the interconnection study, Olson said the time it takes to move through the MISO queue system has been a major concern. Big Stone Wind originally contracted with MISO to fund the interconnection study in August 2007.

A major utility stated its willingness to sign a power purchase agreement earlier this year, but Big Stone Wind had to pass on the opportunity since the study process is not yet complete, according to Olson.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the whole process is the uncertainty, according to Olson. The investors could provide the $511,000 for the study costs, and then learn that MISO would not approve the interconnection needed.

The investors will be meeting on Nov. 6 to decide what to do.

Olson said the MISO correspondence essentially gives Big Stone Wind 30 days from Oct. 16 to provide the additional money.