Allete Clean Energy, the year-old renewable energy development unit of a Duluth-based utility, has won regulatory approval for its first project -- a $200 million wind farm in North Dakota.

But the company said Friday that it won't start buying and installing turbines until there's a buyer for the 100 megawatts of electricity.

"We will wait to build this project until we have a customer," said Pat Mullen, vice president of marketing and corporate communications for Allete Inc., the parent of Minnesota Power and Allete Clean Energy.

Allete Clean Energy was formed in August 2011 to develop and manage wind and other renewable energy resources for other utilities, cooperatives or other large power suppliers and users. The company operates independently of Minnesota Power, a regulated utility that serves 140,000 retail and wholesale customers, including mining companies, in central and northeast Minnesota.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission on Wednesday approved a site certificate for the Allete project, which is in the west-central part of that state.

In regulatory proceedings, the company said the wind farm would have 33 to 50 turbines and the electricity could be carried to Minnesota via a dedicated transmission line owned by Minnesota Power.

Dwight Anderson, an Allete executive leading the North Dakota project, testified before the commission that potential buyers last year had expressed interest in purchasing the wind farm's output, but no agreement was struck.

"Interest has waned as the growth and need for energy remained flat or declined in the overall Midwest region," he testified in May.

The company continued with project planning, including acquiring land rights and conducting engineering and environmental studies. Mullen said this week's regulatory approval means the company is poised to quickly build the project in 2013 or 2014 if a customer surfaces.

The wind power industry faces the expiration of a key incentive -- the production tax credit -- at the end of this year. The industry has lobbied Congress to reauthorize it, but many wind power projects are on hold while the matter remains unsettled.

Mullen said Allete Clean Energy has several other projects in the works, but no others have been publicly disclosed.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090