Firm fans interest in LaGrange wind farms

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A local startup expects to rustle southwest LaGrange County’s economy when it invests up to $250 million to build wind farms there

Pioneer Wind Energy LLC wants to begin building up to five wind farms near Topeka next year. Each wind farm would cost $40 million to $50 million and generate 20 megawatts of electricity, said Steve Stroup, the company’s managing director.

The Fort Wayne-based company already has rented more than 4,000 acres, enough land to build two wind farms. Pioneer Wind Energy will decide how many farms to build based on the amount of land and financing it accumulates and wind energy demand, Stroup said.

If Pioneer Wind Energy realizes its vision, 75 wind turbines could dot LaGrange County’s rural landscape. Each wind farm would contain 10 to 15 turbines, Stroup said. The turbines have three blades, each between 120 and 160 feet long. The blades would be mounted about 260 feet in the air, he said.

Pioneer Wind Energy’s project will be a fraction of the size of wind farms being developed in northwest Ohio. Horizon Wind Energy expects to invest up to $1 billion to build wind farms in Paulding and Van Wert counties. Those projects would produce at least four times as much electricity as Pioneer Wind Energy’s five proposed wind farms.

Topeka has enough wind to support smaller wind farms but not enough to support a major project, Stroup said. Pioneer Wind Energy selected the area in part because it was less likely to draw competition from large-scale wind developers.

If all five wind farms are built, Stroup said Pioneer Wind Energy will hire 12 to 15 full-time employees to operate and maintain the turbines. Those positions would pay between $35,000 and $50,000 a year. The project’s construction could create an estimated 30 to 50 temporary jobs, he said.

A workshop scheduled for next week will encourage northeast Indiana manufacturers to produce wind-turbine components for projects like Pioneer Wind Energy’s wind farms. The Northeast Indiana Green Build Coalition, Indiana Michigan Power and state and regional officials will conduct a wind energy supply chain seminar at Grand Wayne Center on Wednesday. Speakers will include a representative of Brevini USA, the wind-turbine parts manufacturer that plans to move its headquarters to Muncie.

Indiana, one of the fastest-growing wind energy markets, is expected to have 836 megawatts of wind-generation capabilities by the end of the year, according to a statement from Gov. Mitch Daniels’ office. Many auto suppliers would like to produce parts for the budding industry, said Doug Ahlfeld, a Northeast Indiana Green Build Coalition board member.

That led the coalition to organize next week’s workshop. Nearly 200 people have registered to attend, and he said about 60 percent are manufacturers connected to the struggling automotive industry.

“With the downturn of that economy,” Ahlfeld said, “we’re trying to educate area businesses about the wind market and if their business could be retooled to fit the wind market.”

The recession is not slowing wind farm construction in Indiana. Horizon Wind Energy broke ground on a White County wind farm Tuesday, and another developer plans to have a similar ceremony Friday at its Benton County project.

Pioneer Wind Energy wants to have its first two wind farms operating by the end of 2010, Stroup said. The company is working on renting more land, financing the project and making agreements with utilities to buy the electricity it would generate.

The project is likely to raise LaGrange County land values, said Gary Zehr, the county’s economic development director. Landowners can receive at least $2,000 to $4,000 a year if a developer builds a single commercial wind turbine on the property, according to the American Wind Energy Association. If land values increase, Zehr said the tax base will benefit.

Stroup declined to describe the terms of Pioneer Wind Energy’s lease agreements.

The tall turbines also could benefit the county’s tourism industry, Zehr said. Tourists visiting Shipshewana could plan a drive to see the wind turbines.

“Having a wind farm could be a little bit of a tourist attraction,” he said.

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