Prevailing winds

As institutional investors expand their definition of real estate to include infrastructure and other alternatives, wind farms are drawing their attention. And their dollars.

While many close to retirement dream about the day they can lounge somewhere within reach of a cooling sea breeze, another kind of breeze could help some pay for their own little slice of paradise by blowing money into their retirement fund.

With oil prices sky-high and not expected to fall significantly anytime soon, investors are taking a serious look at renewable energy sources and they like what they see in wind farms. “Pension funds and equity investors are pouring money into the wind sector,” John Dunlop, manager of the renewable-energy finance department at HSH Nordbank in London told The Wall Street Journal recently. “You’re getting pretty fat dividends.”

While wind power has been prevalent in Europe for some time, technology within the sector has improved and fields of power-generating windmills have spread way beyond Holland, where they have been used to not only generate power, but to pump water, allowing much of the low-lying country to be reclaimed from the sea.

Today, you can find wind farms everywhere from the European countryside to the 1,300-acre site of a former steel factory near Buffalo, New York, where the windmills will be taller than almost all the buildings in that part of the state, according to the Buffalo News. Reportedly, the company that is developing the project in Upstate New York even wants to bring windmills to New York City, and would place turbines in the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island.

Wind farms: powerful real estate

Despite the attention towards alternative energy sources like ethanol, a biofuel often derived from agricultural products institutional investors seem to prefer wind farms to corn fields. Private-equity investment in wind energy has exploded, collecting $4 billion in 2004 and more than half the private capital flowing into renewable energy—a sector that includes biofuels, geothermal energy, and solar power, according to a report issued by London-based New Energy Finance cited in the Journal.

Funds pumping cash into wind farms can earn anywhere between 9 percent and 15 percent on their money, depending on the level of government support for the project. So, what’s the catch? At least in the US, the tax credit that helps makes wind farms and other alternative energy ventures a financially viable source of power expires in 2008.