An emerging group of wind-farm developers are focusing on midsized project farms and in places utility companies are overlooking. These community-wind projects, ranging from five to 80 MW, are cropping up in part due to recent financial incentives and guidance from firms such as OwnEnergy Inc, Brooklyn, NY. “Several converging factors make community wind projects viable,” says OwnEnergy Founder and CEO Jacob Susman. “First is a transmission capacity. This is an opportunity for smaller projects to tap into the transmission infrastructure, avoiding the need for costly new upgrades. Also, as the industry matures, people in local communities are looking for more involvement, control, and a financial stake in a project, more than just the land leases they may be offered by an “absentee” developer. Finally, banks are more interested in making relatively small loans, as little as $20 million loans for a community wind project. The inudstry is now saying that ‘small is the new big’”.
Susman says his company’s role is to identify a local partner or entrepreneur, someone who lives in the community or has ties there, and preferably a significant land owner in the project footprint. “Then we form a joint venture with the local partner. For example, partners in Kay County Oklahoma, a father and son team with property in the footprint, can count several generations in the area. Their land will be used in the project along with neighbors’ land. That arrangement brings a sensitivity to projects. Our role is to make the project work for everyone in the community.”
An island community off Maine, Fox Islands Wind LLC, provides another example of community wind. “Instead of importing power from the mainland on a cable, they generate it themselves. They decided to install three wind generators, and then structured the power, financing, procurement contracts as a community with an entrepreneurial person at the lead. A development company such as ours is in the lead so all members have an ownership stake,” says Susman.
Wind projects develop in several stages. An early stage involves feasibility and gathering land for the project, getting a wind assessment of the property, and steps such as getting in the transmission queue. ”A lot of the early effort is local, a good amount of that is done by the local partner. We provide the documentation he would take around to the community. We would do the feasibility work, site assessment to figure out the farm size, make sure we are not in areas of endangered habitat, on whose property the turbines would be placed, and how it would connect to the grid,” he says.
A middle development phase is outsourced. It includes studies around transmission and permitting, and continuing the wind resource work by a third party, while OwnEnergy typically manages the third parties with input from the local partner. That person might be working with the community dealing with the land owners, and getting county tax abatement for the locals. If anyone in the community is not comfortable with the project, the third party works with that person. A final stage signs up contractors and gets the project ready for financing by wind energy lenders and tax-equity firms.