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A wind wonderland

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If Chicago is known as the "Windy City," then North Dakota might as well be known as the "Windy State."

Realistically speaking, the Peace Garden State is known much more these days for its oil in the booming Bakken, but production of its vast wind energy is also on the rise of late.

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A sector of the energy industry that is typically on either a boom or bust cycle -- depending on a number of factors -- support for wind power seems to be picking up of late.

Though it's a small amount in the grand scheme of the state's budget, North Dakota lawmakers did approve $3 million for the upcoming biennium through a renewable energy development fund for clean energy -- the first time that has been done -- as part of the larger Resources Trust Fund pie the state will dole out beginning July 1.

Other wind projects around the state include a large turbine operation in the works near Courtenay north of Jamestown and the dedication next week of the Bison Wind Energy Project near New Salem, the culmination of a three-phase, three-year project consisting of more than 100 turbines.

Those projects are in addition to about 20 turbine clusters around the state, with plans in the works for another near Hettinger, according to North Dakota Public Service Commission Chairman Brian Kalk.

"A few years ago, wind was pretty busy in North Dakota with a lot of projects going on," Kalk said. "Last year, there was a lot of uncertainty around the (wind energy) production tax credit, which is a tax break for some of those projects. That, coupled with the fact that energy demand has been down around the country, we didn't have any wind projects last year. Since the start of this year, however, we have five new wind farms in the works in the state."

Touting North Dakota's "unique and vast energy resources," Kalk was a featured speaker earlier this month at the American Wind Energy Association convention in Chicago. The state currently produces just more than 1,600 megawatts of power from wind, though much of that power is used by out-of-state interests, Kalk said.

"The only area of the state where we haven't really seen significant wind development is the northwest, but they're busy with oil and gas," Kalk said. "One thing that people don't sometimes think about with regard to wind farms is the fact that there has to be transmission lines pretty close by to move the electrons. It's very uncommon to have transmission lines built for wind farms because, even in North Dakota, wind is only about 40 percent reliable."

Kalk said more solutions are constantly being developed to help combine energy sources, such as fossil fuels and wind and other renewables.

"What I see nationally is that there are a lot of people who are interested in North Dakota wind," Kalk said. "The wind farm in Courtenay could produce a lot of energy that could be used in Minnesota or other areas along the power grid. Some states don't have the baseline energy sources that we do here in North Dakota, where 18 percent of our power is from renewable energy."

In Minnesota, a government mandate is in place that calls for 25 percent of the state's power to come from renewable energy sources by the year 2025, said Amy Rutledge, a spokesperson for the Duluth-based Minnesota Power/ALLETE -- the company behind the Basin Wind project.

"We're currently bringing 300 megawatts of clean energy from North Dakota to about 143,000 customers in Minnesota," Rutledge said. "We've invested about $500 million in North Dakota wind because we believe it has some of the best wind resources in the country. We see North Dakota as an energy-rich and policy-friendly state."

Newly elected North Dakota Alliance for Renewable Energy President Kim Christianson said though the state is known for its oil, there is also a big push for the continued development of green energy sources.

"Obviously, there is tremendous activity with oil and gas in the Bakken and that has captured the attention of the public and the media," Christianson said. "Wind energy grew at a tremendous rate here in North Dakota for a number of years, and there are still wind projects going up, but the development isn't quite as robust as it used to be. Moving forward, wind energy will play a role, but it remains to be seen what the federal government will do. Right now, the current tax breaks are good through the end of this year."

Christianson said the amount of energy produced by wind in North Dakota today is about equivalent to that of a 700-megawatt power plant.

"That would be a huge power plant, so we produce a lot from wind in our state," Christianson said. "A large coal-fired power plant at full capacity would be about 600 megawatts. There is no question that wind energy contributes a lot to our state economy."

Renewable energy, such as wind and biofuels, generate more than $1.2 billion in annual economic activity in North Dakota, according to a study released this year by the North Dakota State University Agribusiness & Applied Economics Department and commissioned by NDARE.

While it isn't generating the talk and news headlines the Bakken does, the wind energy sector seems to be picking up steam again in North Dakota. Then again, officials are adamant it could all depend on which way the political winds are blowing in Washington.

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Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
(701) 456-1207
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