In North Dakota, wind energy closes the gap on coal

| Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, 5:33 p.m.

MINOT, N.D. — While coal-powered mines will probably be the No. 1 source for producing electricity in North Dakota, wind energy is slowly closing the gap.

At Basin Electric Cooperative, the co-op members asked Basin to produce 10 percent of its energy through renewable resources, primarily wind and hydro power. Within a few years, the company reached that threshold and has since surpassed it, the Minot Daily News reported.

Basin currently produces 13 percent of its power through wind and close to 6 percent from hydro. On the wind side, most of the power is purchased from companies that run their own wind farms. In North Dakota, Basin has just one wind farm of its own, an 82-turbine farm just south of Minot on U.S. Highway 83.

Basin's venture into wind began early in the 2000s with two turbines at PrairieWinds ND 1, Inc.

“Back in ‘01, they were made,” said Mark Loats, operation and maintenance supervisor at PrairieWinds. “That was our first venture into wind. It's old technology.”

Thirteen years later, those two turbines continue to spin, but they have been joined by 80 new turbines at the 25,000-acre facility.

“What you see here at PrairieWinds tells a story about how the co-ops have really gotten into renewable energy,” said Erin Huntimer, project coordinations representative for Basin. “The co-ops were telling us they wanted more renewable energy.”

Most of the wind energy in the Basin system comes through a partnership with Nextair Energy. Nextair builds its own wind farms and sells all the power to Basin.

“The turbines you see here are a whole different story,” Huntimer said. “The turbines here are co-op owned. This belongs to Basin and the members.”

The 80 1.5-megawatt turbines at PrairieWinds stand taller than the state Capitol building in Bismarck. The three blades move up to 150 miles per hour, and the turbines can operate in winds as high as 54 mph.

At full capacity, the wind farm can make enough electricity to power 98,000 homes. Unfortunately, no wind farm operates at full capacity. On average, wind farms produce 30 percent of their capacity in power because wind is not constant.

At PrairieWinds, the turbines produce at 46 percent of capacity, one of the highest standards in the nation.

While Basin is always interested in adding more renewable energy, Huntimer said the $250 million farm at PrairieWinds probably won't be duplicated.

“We're not planning on building any of our own right now,” she said. “We do have some outstanding commitments to purchase if they do get built.”

While much of North Dakota seems to have steady wind, building a wind farm is highly scientific. It took two years of study to place the 80 turbines at PrairieWinds, and each location was specifically chosen.

“The placement of the turbines is very specific,” Loats said. “At 10 miles per hour, they will come on and produce a few kilowatts. At 20 miles per hour, they will produce 1.5 megawatts. So a few feet in placement can make a big difference.”

At PrairieWinds, Loats and seven other Basin employees maintain the turbines. The work often requires the employees climb to the top of the 262-foot tall turbines. The goal is to keep all 82 turbines spinning and creating electricity.

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