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Wind farm hits standstill

Construction on the $300-million Big Sky wind farm in southeastern Lee and northern Bureau counties is on hold for at least 10 months, thanks to a problem its supplier is having with faulty turbine blades.

The 13,000-acre, 114-turbine project near Ohio was slated to be online by the end of this year, but blades nearly the length of a football field started cracking on some U.S. wind farms early this year.

Big Sky builder, Edison Mission Energy, has therefore opted to wait until April at the earliest to resume installing the towers, corporate and municipal officials said.

India-based turbine builder Suzlon has agreed to refurbish more than 1,200 blades that were installed or are en route to U.S. wind farms, according to a written statement. Suzlon estimated the repair cost at $25 million.

The downtime, however, means Edison Mission Energy will be too late to take advantage of congressional subsidies for alternative electricity production.

Midwest Wind Energy, a Chicago-based wind farm developer, has nine active projects in three states and negotiated the Big Sky project before selling the rights to private equity firm Edison Mission just days ago.

Michael Donahue, Midwest Wind’s vice president, said his company already has $50 million invested in Big Sky and has every intention of completing the project once Congress reauthorizes the green incentives known as production tax credits.

The tax credits, which provide substantial tax relief for power companies generating environmentally friendly electricity, expire at the end of this year.

When those concessions might again become available is anyone’s guess, and operating a wind farm without them isn’t economically viable, Donahue said.

“People thought the production tax credit was kind of a no-brainer,” Donahue said. “But things are always different during an election cycle.”

Not only has Suzlon’s engineering gaffe put Edison Mission Energy and Midwest Wind at a competitive disadvantage, but it also has shorted local municipalities eager to cash in on millions in property tax revenue.

Schools in Ohio, in the northern reaches of Bureau County, were looking to double their local tax revenue by the end of this year and start thinking about lowering taxes to the handful of homeowners propping up the small district.

In Lee County, Supervisor of Assessments Wendy Ryerson said the overall loss to county municipalities is difficult to estimate.

This year’s tax bills for Big Sky would have been based on the number of days generating power – a figure that depends on when each turbine was brought online and tied into the grid, Ryerson said.

As a means of reaching electricity consumers in the Chicagoland market, Midwest Wind included in Big Sky an 18-mile run of transmission lines along state Route 26.

Edison Mission Energy plans to continue installing the transmission lines, along with two substations.

By Sam Smith


24 June 2008