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How Warren Buffett's Energy Unit Will Pump Up the Deflated U.S. Wind Industry

Warren Buffett's energy company, MidAmerican Energy, will build 258 turbines in Iowa, effectively pulling the U.S. wind industry out of the catatonic state it fell into earlier this year.

To put this week's announcement in perspective, consider this comparison: MidAmerican's project will add 593 megawatts of wind-powered capacity. Last quarter, the U.S. added a total of 395 megawatts of wind power, the lowest numbers since the first quarter of 2007. That means MidAmerican -- a subsidiary of MidAmerican Energy Holdings, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK), is adding more in this one project than the U.S. did in the third quarter of 2010.

It's worth noting that right now Iowa doesn't needed the additional capacity. And MidAmerican admitted as much to Iowa Utilities Board, which last year approved a 1,000 megawatt expansion of the company's wind capacity in the state, the Des Moines Register reported. MidAmerican doesn't seem concerned however, and is more focused on future plans than current capacity needs. In the meantime, construction and maintenance jobs will be created, which is always a good thing.

There's another reason why MidAmerican is keen on this project. MidAmerican and its partner American Electric Power (AEP) have moved forward on its plan to develop two 765-kV transmission lines that will extend from the Indiana/Ohio border west across Indiana and into Illinois. Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison agreed last month to build the Illinois portion. The entire project is estimated to cost $1.6 billion and will be built between 2015 and 2018, depending on regulatory approvals. MidAmerican has agreed to jointly develop the second transmission line, which will extend from the end of the Illinois line into Iowa. That portion will cost an estimated $650 million.

The upshot? MidAmerican can connect its wind energy projects to the line and send and sell power elsewhere.

Nuts and bolts of the announcement:

  • Siemens Energy will supply the turbines that will be built at two of its plants in Kansas, including its new 300,000-square-foot wind turbine assembly facility in Hutchinson, Kan., which opened in December 2010
  • This is Siemen's largest onshore wind order from the U.S.
  • MidAmerican also will acquire RPM Access' Laurel wind project under development in Iowa, where 52 of the ordered Siemens turbines will be located
  • The turbines will be erected in 2011, with completion expected in 2012.
Photo from Flickr user Stephan Ulhmann, CC 2.0