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Proposal would bring 125 turbines to Kandiyohi County as part of $500M wind farm

ATWATER -- If things go as planned -- and there are a few ifs -- a bumper crop of wind could be harvested in a 100-square-mile area around Grove City, Atwater and Kandiyohi within the next decade.

If enough land leases are secured, if there are enough local investors, if a large equity investor can be wooed and if access to the electrical transmission system is granted -- a wind farm with 125 wind turbines sprouting from the ground and growing more than 80 meters into the sky will be established here.

Construction of the proposed community wind farm, known as Lake Country Wind Energy LLC, could begin within the next three to five years. The $500 million multiphase project could be completed in 10 years and produce up to 300 megawatts of renewable wind energy.

"I don't see anything that isn't insurmountable," said Jan Donahue, a field specialist with National Wind and one of the go-to people for the project.

"I'm very optimistic about this project. I don't see it not happening," said Donahue, who along with Jesse Hopkins-Hoel, is staffing an office in Atwater.

The project received good response at the Kandiyohi County and Meeker County fairs, and area landowners have been coming into the office to find out about land lease options.

"There's so much excitement," Donahue said.

A community meeting to explain the project will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Atwater Community Center.

A wind farm here would help meet the need for more renewable energy, provide opportunities for local investments and encourage American manufacturing jobs of wind turbine equipment, Donahue said. "I see it as a very good thing. A very positive thing," she said.

So do the eight local investors who helped establish Lake Country Wind Energy LLC this spring. With preliminary data about the wind corridor, the group contacted National Wind LLC, a Minnesota company that teams up with local communities to develop wind farms. National Wind is currently developing more than 4,000 megawatts worth of wind energy with projects located in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The demand for wind rights by big utility companies and international investors is making the wind energy business competitive, in part because of federal green energy mandates.

Rural landowners are being solicited by large companies and may not be aware of options for local control that would keep investments in the community where the wind is produced, said Steve Bergo, one of the board members and original investors. Bergo and his wife farm in Meeker County.

Under the management and know-how of National Wind, the local board of directors hopes to build Lake Country Wind Energy into a profitable generator of wind energy that will have a positive payback for the community.

The process isn't fast, however, in part because of the long review required by the Midwest Independent Systems Operator which evaluates accessibility to the transmission grid.

"We're not in control of the time frame," Bergo said. "It will be studied to death."

One of the first steps the company is taking is to erect three "met" towers that will gather wind data for at least 12 months and determine the placement of the 125 turbines.

The first met tower will be installed this fall near Atwater. The other two will be installed in the spring.

A prospectus, which will provide stock offering details for potential investors, is also in the works. Until that legal document is approved, the board of directors cannot discuss financial opportunities, Bergo said.

In general, local individuals will invest several million dollars in the project, but the bulk of funding will come from large equity investors who are looking for payback in the form of a federal tax credit for renewable energy. After about 10 years, the majority ownership will revert to Lake Country Wind Energy and its investors.

Unlike ethanol or biomass electricity plants, the costs of producing wind do not fluctuate with increasing transportation costs, Bergo said. And 20-year contracts for the purchase of electricity provide a steady revenue source. "Our risks are front-loaded," he said.

The project has the potential to provide economic development opportunities for the area, said Wes Nelson, a Meeker County farmer, landowner and board member of Lake County Wind Energy. Landowners will receive lease payments and government entities will receive payments in lieu of taxes for every megawatt or kilowatt of electricity the wind farm produces.

"Every time that turbine spins, more money comes back to the community," said Berg. Having a large wind farm could also create local manufacturing jobs for wind turbines. "We're developing a whole new industry," Bergo said.

Gordy Behm, a retired Atwater area farmer and member of the board of directors, said he's pleased with the positive response the proposal has received so far and is optimistic about its success.

"It gives people the opportunity to be part of something bigger," said Bergo.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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