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Bison Wind Energy Center on track for 2012 completion

There’s a lot of excitement about western North Dakota and the Bakken oil boom that’s bringing money and new people to the state. Head a little further east, and there’s excitement about another form of energy bringing its own economic boom – North Dakota’s newest wind farm.

The blooming August sunflowers make an especially picturesque backdrop for the shiny new wind turbines dotting the landscape in Oliver and Morton Counties. Minnesota Power (an ALLETE Company) is building the Bison Wind Energy Center near Center, N.D., and is on track to have all 101 wind turbines spinning by the close of 2012.


Dave Schmitz at Bison Wind Energy Center

Dave Schmitz at Bison Wind Energy Center

A three-part story.
Bison Wind is built in three phases – I, II and III. Its first phase of 31 wind turbines came online in early 2012 and has a capacity of 82 megawatts (MW) of electricity. Due to the national economic slowdown in 2009, Phase I was built in two stages; the first contains 16 turbines rated at 2.3 MW and the second has 15 turbines rated at 3.0 MW. With this break between stages, it worked well to utilize a new technology that became available.

The second stage of turbines in Bison I have no gearbox according to Dave Schmitz, general manager of ND renewable operations. “What that means to us is that there are fewer parts to break and less maintenance costs,” Schmitz said.

Conventional wind turbines contain a gearbox to connect the rotor of the spinning blades to the generator in order to speed up the rotation, increase the magnetic field and, in turn, create more electricity. In the new technology used at Bison Wind, called a “direct drive” turbine, the gearbox is eliminated and the magnets are larger to create similar power. See Siemens explain the technology in greater detail.

Construction of phases II and III is moving full steam ahead to get the remaining 70 turbines online before the end of the year when federal production tax credits are scheduled to expire. So far, ten have been erected. All of the turbines have a capacity of 3.0 MW and something else of note with an interesting name.

Dino Tails

A close-up of “dino tails” on three turbine blades lined up for assembly

“Dino tails. It’s a spiked ridge on the blades that reduce noise and make the blades more efficient as they spin,” Schmitz explained.

Out on the country roads with very little ambient noise, you can sometimes hear the soft swish of the blades and see a shadow flicker across the ground. These inherent characteristics of wind turbines are why ALLETE is dedicated to working with landowners, using the best technology to site a turbine, and using the newest equipment to reduce effects.

Project specifics
Once construction is complete, there will be around 23 full-time employees at the site operation center, a building at the heart of the wind farm.

The turbines will have a total capacity of 292 MW of power. Todd Simmons is the operations manager of Bison Wind. He said the project is averaging a capacity factor of 42 – 44 percent, thanks to the robust North Dakota wind. Capacity factor is essentially used to describe about how often the wind is blowing enough for the turbines to generate electricity – of which 40 percent is quite good using today’s technology. The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy division of the U.S. Department of Energy reports in its 2011 Wind Technologies Market Report (pages vi – vii of Executive Summary) that the national capacity factor has increased from 25 percent in 1999 to a high of 34 percent in 2008. Read a more detailed definition of capacity factor here.

The electricity will make its 465-mile trek from the Square Butte Substation near Center to Duluth, along a 250 KV direct current (DC) line. This will help keep Minnesota Power on track to meet its 2025 mandate from the state of Minnesota to get 25 percent of its power from renewable sources.

A company and a neighbor
“With a power plant, there is one location. With a wind generation farm, you have construction sites all over,” Schmitz said. “We want to be a good neighbor.”

Both Schmitz and Simmons have a history with power plants that give them a unique perspective on their company-ingrained attitude of being a responsible and respected member of the community. Schmitz has more than 35 years in the electric utility industry and Simmons is a former plant manager of Boswell Energy Center, a coal-based power plant near Cohasset, Minn. Both are focused on being good stewards and building relationships with the farmers.

“A power plant is like a little city, and you have stakeholders in the communities surrounding it,” Simmons said. “Here, we’ve moved into the backyard of folks who have farm operations going, and we have to work harder and be clear with our intentions every step of the way or our reputation is tarnished. We need to be good stewards, because we’re long term renters.”

Part of that neighborliness is giving the state and local economy a serious boost.


Bison Wind Crew

From L to R: Wayne Johnson, Construction & Maintenance Inspector; Ben Reister, Civil Engineer; Todd Simmons, Operations Manager; Scott Monroe, Property & Right-of-Way Agent; and Mike Pontius, Project Engineer

What it takes to build a wind farm
The core group at Bison Wind knows all the statistics. Huddled around “command central,” Simmons and his project team members rattled off a variety of impressive numbers stored by memory.

  • Minnesota Power built new roads and widened and improved some existing roads to provide better access to their turbines. By next year, they will be maintaining about 50 miles of road with snow removal and repair.
  • Twenty-three miles of 230-kilovolt transmission line were built from the wind center to the Square Butte Power substation.
  • There are 100 miles of underground cable collecting electricity and bringing it to the substation.
  • At peak generation, tip speed of the 161-foot blades is 190 mph.
  • For placement of the 101 wind turbines, Minnesota Power right-of-way agents correspond with 270 landowners.
  • And the big one – more than 25,000 trucks have been out to the site bringing turbine pieces, gravel, concrete, fuel, equipment and the like.

Local companies have been tapped – like 101 wind towers from DMI Industries in West Fargo, N.D.; 46,000 yards of concrete from Bismarck-based Knife River; gravel and fuel out of Mandan, N.D. Not to mention that the peak number of 280 construction workers onsite like to eat and have a place to sleep, too.

All-in-all, Schmitz estimates that the economic benefit to the state in 2011 alone was $20 million with previous and future investments to total even higher.

“Overall Bison has been a good project with mutual benefits,” Schmitz said. “We value our partnerships in North Dakota that allow us to bring cost-effective sustainable energy to our customers in Minnesota.”

Bison Wind Construction

A Bison Wind turbine under construction. Note the bases of five more wind turbines to be erected before the end of 2012.

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