Wind energy become part of South Dakota prairie

Bad weather has grounded workers for only four days since construction began Oct. 1 on the 108-turbine wind farm southwest of Wessington Springs, and 86 of the 108 wind turbines now tower over the prairie landscape.

In just two months, South Dakota Wind Partners raised the necessary $16 million from South Dakota investors in a unique publicly invested wind farm. Completion of the wind power project is scheduled for April.

“We call it a second bite at the apple,” said Scott Parsley, membership services director for East River Electric Power Cooperative, one of the four partners in the wind energy project. “We’re giving people an opportunity to invest in wind power projects.”

Also putting up $20,000 each in seed money to get the project off the ground were the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council, the South Dakota Farm Bureau and the South Dakota Farmers Union.

The partners were optimistic about the future of the wind power project after the initial investor meeting Aug. 2 in Mitchell, because 10 percent, or about $1.6 million, was raised that first day. After 27 meetings, 611 investors had pledged the required $16 million, and when the group called in the note on Nov. 5 all 611 paid up.

“That makes us feel good about this being a right idea for South Dakota because people were that committed following through with that investment,” Parsley said at the recent Beadle County Democratic Forum.

Not only could producers in the White Lake project area rent their land for a tower, they could also invest in it and see a return. Those who live in a valley where wind turbines won’t be built also had the opportunity to invest, providing an incentive to see that transmission lines across their land are built.

South Dakota Wind Partners will own seven wind turbines next to Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s 101 wind turbines.

“It’s been a difficult time for the co-ops to actually have ownership until recently and that’s because we’re nonprofit organizations,” Parsley said.

All of the tax credits that help wind power become affordable to consumers are directed in hopes of having tax benefits, but the cooperatives don’t pay taxes and haven’t been eligible.

But as part of the federal stimulus package, the Treasury Department created a renewable energy grant program that provided an opportunity for South Dakota Wind Partners to develop a community-based wind energy project so average people could invest.

Of the $23 million project cost, the grant will cover 30 percent. The funds will be released after the wind power project is finished and operational.

Basin Electric is serving a multiple role in the wind farm, as project developer, project manager, construction manager and operation manager. The North Dakota-based cooperative will also purchase the output from the wind farm, which is a key component.

One of the wind turbines is owned by Mitchell Technical Institute, which financed its purchase and construction through a federal grant.

MTI has a new program in which it trains students how to work on wind turbines. But up until now, it didn’t have a tower for students to train on, and on occasion there have been cases where a student has gone through the program only to be unable to climb a tower.

“I’ve never climbed up one, but they tell me they’ll move as much as five feet at the top,” Parsley said. A nearby maintenance center building will serve as a classroom for MTI students.

The wind farm will create about 20 to 22 good-paying jobs, but not all of them will be on the site. As they were developing plans for the wind farm, the partners conferred with those involved with producer-owned ethanol plants.

The community-based wind farm is unique in many ways, and it’s also the first of its kind. “This is the only one of these that has been done in the country right now,” Parsley said.

By Roger Larsen,