by Sarah Squires
An unprecedented public and private partnership for a proposed $3.6 million wind turbine project in Winona County may have netted an investor, and all signs point to construction beginning in the spring at the Mount Vernon Township site.
If things go as planned with the project, Winona County will become one of the first municipalities in Minnesota to combine tax dollars with private investments through a public and private Limited Liability Corporation to develop wind energy. And Winona County Economic Development Authority Director Linda Grover said there is more good news about the project on the horizon.
County leaders had been trying to move the project along quickly in order to meet a state imposed deadline for the twin turbine project to be up and running by Dec. 31, 2009, in order to secure $200,000 in state grant money. But Grover said that that deadline has been extended through the end of June 2010, a target that may well be met after over four years of planning for the project.
Grover said that information regarding the investor lined up for the project is still private, and there is one more formality that needs to be taken care of before the investor agreement can be finalized. An “interconnection agreement” must be finished with Xcel Energy, which stipulates the physical connection between the turbines and the power lines, along with costs. No word yet on the timeline for when Xcel will be ready to sign the agreement, although Grover said she is optimistic it will be finalized soon.
Winona County has been working on the turbine project for years, and received special legislative approval last year to form an LLC to partner with investors. The ownership model for the agreement is expected to follow what has been coined the “Minnesota Flip,” with the private investors owning 99 percent of the developments and profits for the first ten years, with the county to own 90 percent after.
Projections show that the county could make a profit of about $1.5 million over the next 20 years with the project. Winona County has already put about $200,000 into plans, and is expected to be reimbursed for some of that expense through the investor agreement.
County leaders have already signed off on the project, and won’t have to vote formally on final steps to construction. But that approval didn’t come without controversy. Winona County Board Chair Marcia Ward, along with skeptical citizens who objected to investing taxpayer dollars into the project, or who felt Winona County won’t make for a windy enough site, questioned the project.
During public hearings on the proposal over the last year, some objected to the site and questioned the validity of data showing the spot would generate enough wind to support financial projections. The county does have a $5,000 WindLogic study which uses historical data to show wind speeds. But actual site specific data from a meteorological tower never surfaced, after the county discovered its tower was broken for a year and measured nothing.
But proponents argue that the historical data is more valuable than the site-specific data from a tower because it spans over more than just a single year. They also argue that the information has been proven accurate within 2.53 percent in other locations where turbines were erected.
The 1.5 megawatt system is considered to be a small scale project, and would provide wind energy to several hundred neighbors in Mount Vernon Township connected through Xcel feeder lines. The project won’t require the large scale CapX2020 power lines to be completed in order to connect to the grid.
While similar wind energy projects are popping up all over western Minnesota, the public and private partnership Winona County is embarking upon will be one of the first of its kind in the state. And even though the county’s 1.5 megawatt project won’t keep the lights on for that many homes in the grand scheme of things, supporters say that the partnership is meant to serve as a prototype for future partnerships here and across the country. “It’s always been the intention with this project to serve as a model for other projects,” said Grover. “To serve as an example.”