SAN FRANCISCO — The Turlock Irrigation District in California, plans to sell $425 million of revenue bonds next month to purchase a wind farm almost 700 miles north of the Central Valley water and power utility.
The rural utility district will use the bond proceeds to buy the Tuolumne Wind Project in Klickitat County, Wash. The distant wind farm, currently under construction, will include 62 massive wind turbines with 50-foot blades. The project is expected to produce 137 megawatts of electricity. That’s enough to power 44,000 homes, or about 5% of the Irrigation District’s power supply.
“California has very a rigorous and stringent renewables policy, and we are purchasing this wind facility to meet those requirements,” said Joseph E. Malaski, the district’s treasurer and assistant general manager for financial services.
He said the TID plans to price the bonds in late June or early July. That’s a bit of a delay from early plans to price the debt this month. The utility is waiting to sell the bonds until the project — which is being built by a private developer — is ready to begin commercial operations.
Citi will be the lead underwriter on the deal, and Public Financial Management Inc. will be the financial adviser. Malaski said the district and its advisers are still deciding on the exact structure of the fixed-rate deal, including whether to use taxable Build America Bonds.
The bonds will be backed by the Turlock Irrigation District’s unconditional take-or-pay agreement to purchase power. The bonds have been rated A1 by Moody’s Investors Service and A-plus by Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings.
The district, which provides electricity to 98,000 homes, businesses, and local governments, is looking far afield to increase its production of renewable energy to meet California’s increasingly stringent greenhouse gas emission standards. The wind project will boost its renewable energy production to 28%.
California utilities are required to get 20% of their electricity from renewables by 2010 and 33% by 2020.
The city of Turlock, which is at the center of the district, is located about 100 miles southeast of San Francisco in Stanislaus County. The Irrigation District also provides water to 5,800 farmers in California’s agricultural heartland.
The wind project is located on a ridge in the Columbia River Gorge in south-central Washington State. As the only sea-level wind passage through the Cascade Mountains, the Columbia River Gorge forms a natural wind tunnel that has attracted many wind developers as well as opposition from locals in some scenic areas.
“When you’re looking at renewable projects, you can’t just plop them down anywhere,” Malaski said. “You need to have wind data that will support” the investment.
Klickitat County is experiencing a boom in wind energy production with 14 projects currently either built or under construction. The county, which has 20,000 residents, will produce enough wind electricity to power one million homes if all the projects are completed, according to the Yakima Herald.
The project “puts TID ahead of most utilities in meeting state renewable portfolio standards,” according to a report by Moody’s analyst Dan Aschenbach. He said the wind project’s lack of a commercial production record is a challenge for the irrigation district, but even in the absolute worst-case scenario — if all 62 turbines failed — meeting its debt service commitments would require the utility to increase rates by just 10%.
The Tuolumne Wind Project is being built by the Cannon Power Group. The San Diego-based company is also developing wind farms in Mexico and Croatia, as well as solar projects in California. The Tuolumne project will be operated by enXco Service Corp., the largest third-party operations and maintenance provider for wind farms in North America.
The $425 million project will nearly double the Turlock Irrigation District’s outstanding debt, according to Fitch. The rating agency said such increased debt loads will be common among California utilities as they rush to meet the state’s ambitious emissions standards.
“Fitch views this type of cost burden as indicative of the significant costs that California electric utilities and their ratepayers will incur to comply with the state’s environmental requirements,” analysts Kathy Masterson and Lina Santoro said in a recent report.