Among Iron Rangers, it’s known as “the hill.” Perched above the city of Virginia, near the Laurentian Divide, U.S. Steel’s Minntac Mine churns out about 14 million tons of iron pellets a year.
Beginning in 2008, a project at the mammoth taconite plant will produce something new: electricity.
Minnesota Power officials will announce today that the company intends to build, own and operate the first commercial wind-energy facility in Northeastern Minnesota.
The $50 million Taconite Ridge facility will produce a constant flow of 25 megawatts of electricity from 10 2.5-megawatt wind turbines.
“I think it’s a big step for us,” said Eric Norberg, Minnesota Power senior vice president. “It’s our first venture into owning and operating a facility like this in Northeastern Minnesota and we want to continue those attributes going forward. We’re looking for other opportunities.”
Pending Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approval, construction is scheduled to begin this summer. The facility would become operational in mid-2008.
The turbines, each about 240 feet tall with blades having a 140-foot span, would be erected on several hundred acres of land leased from U.S. Steel, just east of Minntac’s processing plants, Norberg said.
Power produced from the turbines would be fed into Minnesota Power’s electric grid, he said.
“One of the challenges in Northeastern Minnesota is to find land that’s not going to be mined,” Norberg said. “We’re looking to quickly develop renewable resources, and I think that they [U.S Steel] as a company are really looking for environmentally friendly projects. It wasn’t a tough sell [to U.S. Steel] at all.”
The project would be an important development for the Iron Range – economically and environmentally, said Maria Surma Manka, a spokeswoman for Fresh Energy, a St. Paul-based nonprofit group.
“It’s a really great step forward that Minnesota Power is taking and a big step forward for the Range in bringing it into the 21st century,” Surma Manka said. “Minnesota needs that clean, renewable energy. It’s great to see wind energy production from one corner of the state to the other.”
Studies have shown wind speeds at the Minntac site to be suitable, said Eric Olson, communications manager for Allete, Minnesota Power’s parent company.
“It’s a strong location,” Olson said. “The wind profile was strong and the owner of the property is strong as well. We think, as a company, that it’s important to locate our energy sources where we live. This is our jump into the renewable resource game.”
The wind turbines are manufactured in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by Clipper Windpower Inc., which has headquarters in Carpinteria, Calif. They would be erected by Minnesota Power employees and a construction contractor, Olson said.
The project cost would be passed on to customers through increased rates, pending regulatory approval.
It is Minnesota Power’s third wind-power venture.
The Duluth-based utility already uses about 50 megawatts of wind energy from the Oliver Wind Energy Center in North Dakota. Another 50 megawatts of North Dakota wind energy is due on line by year’s end.
With the Iron Range project, Minnesota Power would have about 125 megawatts of wind energy.
Like other electrical utilities in the state, Minnesota Power is mandated by 2025 to produce 25 percent of its electricity from renewable resources. In February, Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed that measure into law.
About 10 percent of the company’s electrical generation comes from renewable sources, Olson said.
Statewide, about 3 percent to 4 percent of Minnesota’s electrical energy comes from wind power, Surma Manka said.
Minnesota ranks fourth in the nation for wind-energy output, just behind Iowa.
In Minnesota, about 895 megawatts are generated from wind turbines, according to the Minnesota Wind Energy Development Web site. Another 201 megawatts, not counting the Taconite Ridge project, are under construction.
Estimates suggest another 5,000 megawatts from renewable sources are needed to meet the law.
A megawatt of electricity powers about 250 to 300 average homes.
With Minnesota’s new renewable energy standard, a surge in wind-energy development is on the horizon, said Jerry Fallos, coordinator for the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership between the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers.
“What happens is that many companies have been waiting for Minnesota to pass the renewable energy standard,” Fallos said. “Now that it’s passed, it’s a guaranteed market. I think you will see things happening. It’s expected that Minnesota will need another 3,000 wind turbines to meet the standard.”
In a region that offers abundant physical assets for biomass, wind and hydro-electrical generation, Minnesota Power is working to develop even more renewable energy resources, Norberg said.
“I think it’s the geography,” Norberg said. “We’re in northern Minnesota where there are trees, water and wind. We want to develop as quickly as possible.”
A biomass initiative by the company has identified the potential for a 50-megawatt biomass-fueled generating unit at its Laskin Energy Center at Hoyt Lakes; the use of biomass fuel at existing facilities; and development of renewable energy improvement projects at customer locations.
A Minnesota Power biomass and renewable energy option plan will be finalized later this year and submitted to the state.
Minnesota Power has 141,000 retail customers and provides wholesale electrical service to 16 municipalities and large industrial customers.
By Lee Bloomquist
Duluth News Tribune
20 April 2007
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