January 2012

Lack of power lines limit wind projects

North Dakota is expected to add hundreds of megawatts of wind energy this year, while development has slowed to a near stop in South Dakota. The difference seems to be the availability of high-voltage power lines to ship the power to cities that need it.

South Dakota has more than 30,000 megawatts of proposed wind energy projects in the queue, according to the American Wind Energy Association, but a state association director said he has received no indication from developers that they're ready to start building new wind farms. "As far as large projects going forward today, there's not much in the hopper," said Ron Rebenitsch, executive director of the South Dakota Wind Energy Association.

South Dakota more than doubled its wind power capacity in 2010 by adding 396 megawatts - enough to power nearly 120,000 homes. Just 75 megawatts were added in 2011, and a lot of the slowdown has to do with the lack of transmission capacity, said Josh Gackle, regional policy manager of the Minneapolis-based group Wind on the Wires. "The availability to ship power out of South Dakota and to points farther east is really hamstrung by the lack of high-voltage transmission," Gackle said.

In North Dakota, one major project that's been approved plus three others being considered by the state Public Service Commission could add 350 megawatts of capacity this year.

Much of that growth has been made possible by a power transmission line that runs from near Center, N.D., to a utility substation near Duluth, Minn. The line, bought two years ago by Duluth-based Minnesota Power, is devoted almost entirely to carrying wind energy out of North Dakota, Gackle said.

Another factor hampering wind development is uncertainty about the production tax credit, a federal incentive that helps offset the cost of electricity production during a wind farm's first 10 years of operation. The credit will expire at the end of this year unless Congress passes an extension.

Rebenitsch said companies want certainty, and a 3- to 5-year extension instead of more typical 2-year extensions could spur more development. "They're kind of putting things on hold to see what happens," he said.