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Wind energy official: no plans yet for Yankton County

While plans for a wind energy development in and around Yankton County are still active, a Clipper Windpower Development Company official said this week there is no immediate strategy to move forward with the project.

Yankton County officials speculated last week that development could be imminent after they noticed some mortgage documents filed in Yankton County apparently showing that Clipper had borrowed $145 million against some local properties. The company has options for wind turbine easements on the properties.

In reality, it was a corporate working capital facility wherein the lenders were granted liens on certain Clipper assets, a very small part of which was real estate interests located in South Dakota, according to Tom Feiler, director of Midwest development for Clipper.

That credit facility has since been dissolved, and those liens are going to be removed over the next month or so, he said.

“The bad news is, the financial information you saw in those documents is not directly related to the Celestial project,” Feiler said. He said the financial transaction was used for company needs elsewhere.

“Having said that, the (Celestial Project, formerly known as the Turkey Ridge Project) itself has great promise,” he added. “We’re continuing to develop it and work on it very diligently. We’re hopeful that, at some point soon, we’ll have some good news.”

The proposed Celestial Project in Yankton and Turner counties would occupy approximately 8,500 acres owned by 75 different landowners and produce a minimum of 200 megawatts, according to Feiler. About 80 Clipper turbines would be needed to produce 200 megawatts.

“It’s going to be a large project,” he said. “We’re about 30 miles or so from an (Xcel Energy) transmission system. Transmission is very expensive to build, so you need to spread those costs over more megawatts.”

Transmission lines can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million per mile, Feiler said.

When the Celestial Project will be built is largely dependent upon the issue of transmission grid access, he said. Reform regarding access to the transmission grid is currently under way.

“The thinking is, if you open up the transmission grid, the more people will be able to get on the grid and sell their energy into the market,” Feiler said.

As it stands, energy producers must apply for transmission rights with a regional system operator and then are put in a queue.

“The problem is, the queue system doesn’t work very well,” Feiler said. “It invites gaming in the system, and it’s been flooded with requests, which has gummed up the system. So the ability for producers to get these transmission rights has gotten really slow and burdensome.”

A community meeting will be held in Freeman sometime in the near future so area residents can air any questions they may have about the Celestial Project, he said.

“We’ll discuss all these things in as much detail as everyone wants to hear about,” Feiler said.

South Dakota Public Utilities Commissioner Dusty Johnson said he’s excited by the fact Clipper has interest in constructing several wind energy developments in the state.

“Clipper is considered to be financially strong and to have the financial resources they need to do projects,” he said. “One thing about Clipper is, they have a tendency to think big and dream big. Some of their projects are literally thousands of megawatts. Now, they haven’t brought anything like that on line. But those are the kinds of projects they envision and want to make a reality.”

Within the last six months, wind energy production in South Dakota has increased by 330 megawatts thanks to projects in Brookings and McPherson counties, according to Johnson.

“We’ve seen … wind power in South Dakota absolutely take off,” he said.

It’s part of a larger trend of increasing America’s overall wind energy development capabilities, according to Feiler. President George Bush stated in a speech that he would like to see 20 percent of America’s energy needs supplied via wind, Feiler pointed out. Right now, wind energy accounts for roughly one percent.

“If we have 20 percent wind, we’re not going to be building wind farms in Louisiana and Florida,” Feiler said. “We’re going to be building wind farms on Buffalo Ridge, south central Kansas, the Texas Panhandle and Wyoming. That’s where these hundreds of thousands of megawatts of new wind is going to be built – in these very windy areas.”

The Celestial Project would be built on what is known as Turkey Ridge, a subset of Buffalo Ridge, according to Feiler.

The potential of this area’s wind energy will be tapped soon, he said.

“(The Celestial Project) has a rather senior position in the queue, and it’s got good wind,” Feiler said. “Now it’s kind of a question of us sitting back and watching how all this transmission reform plays out. It’s one of those areas that’s going to get built.”

By Nathan Johnson

Yankton Press & Dakotan

13 June 2008