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Colorado's Huerfano County Welcomes Wind Energy Development: A Wind Powering America Success Story

December 17, 2012

Utility-scale wind energy development may involve a long process for a variety of reasons, including wind resource assessments, limited or no access to transmission lines, and social acceptance issues. The path to a wind farm development in Huerfano County, Colorado, began in 2006 with a small school installation and only recently culminated in the Busch Ranch Wind Project coming online in October 2012.

In 2006, Colorado had 291 megawatts (MW) of wind energy installed. Huerfano County had no commercial installations and was in the process of becoming home to the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Wind Powering America (WPA) Wind for Schools pilot project at John Mall High School in Walsenburg. The pilot project turbine was a 900-Watt Southwest Windpower Whisper 100 that would be installed over a 2-day period in late June.

Tony Jimenez, senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), was one of the original Wind Powering America team members who coordinated project operations for the John Mall installation. Jimenez remembers this installation as one of the first wind energy projects in Huerfano County. He noted that officials from the local utility, San Isabel Electric Association, were very interested and helpful.

"The local rural electric association was really into it. They dug the trench and helped with other parts of the installation, helping tilt the tower," Jimenez said. "They were one of the local champions, along with Ed Johnson. They were starting to do prospecting for larger projects around this time, so this project was a way to raise awareness."

Susan Innis, senior manager of public affairs with Vestas, was also involved with the John Mall project in 2006 and believes that the interest from San Isabel Electric Association and other champions helped pave the way for future wind energy development in Huerfano County.

"Once the turbine was up and running, it kind of spurred interest from the local community, and San Isabel Electric loaned anemometers to a number of landowners in the county to measure their wind resource," Innis said. "Over time, those anemometers were fully subscribed, so they borrowed more from the state anemometer loan program and the Wind Application Center at Colorado State University. Then they started to attract interest from commercial developers."

According to Huerfano County Administrator John Galusha, the county saw increased numbers of anemometer installations after NREL released its wind maps and, as a result of the anemometer measurements, received several project applications over the past few years. The Busch Ranch Wind Project is the first to be installed.

The 29-MW project is co-owned by Black Hills Energy Corporation and AltaGas Renewable Energy Colorado and consists of 16 Vestas 1.5-MW turbines that were manufactured in Colorado. Thirty-six miles of transmission line connect the project to the grid. The project represents an approximately $26.5 million investment that created 55 jobs during peak construction and will employ two workers during its operation.

Black Hills spent more than $1 million locally during construction and also provided the Community Development Fund with a check for $178,000. County officials say the project will also provide Huerfano County with $80,000 to $120,000 annually in tax revenue, which will help the county tax base.

"We're kind of a unique community in Colorado because our population has been declining since the 1960s," Galusha said. "This project will help us create the lifestyle infrastructure that we need to draw younger residents back into the county."

Marguerite Kelly, NREL senior project manager, believes that the economic benefits from wind projects to counties like Huerfano are extremely important.

"The taxes make a big difference," Kelly said. "If you look at the outcome of the wind project in Lamar, it increased their funds for the schools and the fire department and added a new wing for the hospital. I think in these rural communities the increase in the tax base is far more dramatic to the community than a farmer getting a few thousand dollars more a year in his pocket."

The U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Powering America initiative, based at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has helped to launch the Wind for Schools project in 11 states (Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Alaska, Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) to equip college juniors and seniors with an education in wind energy applications; engage America's communities in wind energy applications, benefits, and challenges; and introduce teachers and students to wind energy. The general approach developed during the John Mall project is to install small wind turbines at rural elementary and secondary host schools while developing Wind Application Centers at higher education institutions.