TIOGA — Many of the comments heard during Thursday’s Public Service Commission hearing for the Lindahl Wind Farm were, in fact, matters outside its purview. However, that didn’t stop the commissioners from listening patiently to each point and adding them to the official record.
Nor did it stop the commission’s chair, Julie Fedorchak, from putting Tradewind on the spot when it came to concerns some landowners had with Section 16.
Section 16 holds 30 of Lindahl Township’s 276 operating wells. There are also drilling rigs in that section — more wells in the future — and other related oil and gas infrastructure.
“Brice, you heard all the concerns from the family on the towers,” she said. “Is there any chance you can look at that and see if there is any way to mitigate their issues?”
Brice Barton was representing Tradewind at the hearing, the company that is developing the wind farm for ECG, which will ultimately construct and operate it.
Barton said Tradewind has in fact looked at that particular section the most and has spent a great deal of time with the state land department placing towers in the safest and best locations. The land office is the agency with authority to sign off on where the towers are placed in relation to oil and gas structures, it was pointed out by both the commissioners and Barton.
Tradewind has taken many other steps to appease concerns with its project leading up to this point. They’ve reduced the project’s footprint to 13,000 acres and decreased the number of turbines to 75. Now instead of being 2 miles from Tioga it is 4. They’ve also voluntarily increased some setbacks from nonparticipating homes.
“We need to put 150 MW in a box,” Barton said. “Section 16 is one we understand a lot more than any of the others. Moving six turbines to another section? There is not room. And you’d be encroaching on other infrastructure and other landowners.”
“What about three?” Fedorchak asked. “The ones that border the east side of the property?”
Barton said they could look at them but would still have to defer back to the state land department, which has land site approval. He added that the spot in question has particularly nice wind, so moving towers might reduce the money generated by the project.
“I do think the people who show up and take the time, that this is what they get,” Fedorchak said. “A little extra attention. I see three alternative spots in yellow and three families made a pretty passionate plea today. What about moving those three?”
“We’d still have to make the vacated spots alternates,” Barton said, “because we have to have alternates.”
Wildlife obstacle course
There were many other concerns that commissioners also dealt with during the 9-hour hearing for northwestern North Dakota’s first proposed wind farm.
A big one for Commissioner Brian P. Kalk, which he announced at the beginning of the hearing, is that the wind farm sits right in the middle of a whooping crane flyway.
“This is not the first,” he said, “and it’s something we were able to work through, but I will be interested to see what you have planned for that.”
Kalk added that he was also concerned about an eagle who was killed at a different wind farm.
“We want to make sure we get our energy resources,” he said, “But we also want to farm and ranch and do all those things, too.”
Jenni Dean, director of environmental studies for Tradewind, testified that the company is a member of the Great Plains Wind Energy Habitat Conservation Plan. This program requires its members to adhere to standards to reduce the effects of any hazards to four species, those being whooping cranes, the interior least tern, piping plovers and the lesser prairie chicken.
Dean said the company isn’t only concerned with just those species, however, but wildlife in general. That includes eagles, bats and pheasants.
They conducted a study which found no eagle nests within 10 miles of the proposed project area. They also contacted U.S. Fish and Game, whose database doesn’t list a known nest within 20 miles. This particular database is not compiled from any exhaustive study, so is no guarantee there aren’t any. But it means there are none yet identified.
Dean said the Missouri River, which is 22 miles away, provides much better habitat for eagles and so they are not expecting to have any eagles show up at the facility. But if they did, it is something that would be monitored on a case by case basis. Fish and Game would be contacted immediately to determine the best way to handle the situation.
“The bird and bat conservation strategy is still being developed,” Dean testified, “but it will outline the measures that will have to be employed ot avoid or minimize impact to avian or bat species.”
They will consider feathering turbine speeds, which means starting them up at slower speeds, rotating their direction and even turning them off altogether if necessary for a period of time, such as during whooping crane migration. Dean said they will likely employ someone whose job will be to monitor migratory pathways and other areas of concern and make a determination on when to turn blades off.
When the towers finally come down
The big concern that occupied Commissioner Randy Christmann’s mind is what will happen when it is time to bring these 260 foot towers down.
“Why shouldn’t I see this as a shell game that prevents landowners and us from finding anyone for the decommissioning?” he asked pointedly at the very beginning of the hearing.
Barton testified that Tradewind will be the party getting permits, so the commissioners or landowners can always follow the project company.
“We have some common ownership of 12 of 13 projects that have or will be built,” Barton said, “and we have this same ownership structure. EGP is introduced at our landowner meetings and has been introduced to the landowners already.”
“Why isn’t EGP here as the applicant?” Christmann pressed.
“Because we do the development for EGP, and they do the construction and operation. It’s how we structure that.”
Christmann changed tack and asked what it was that the city of Tioga was concerned about.
Barton said they were unable to pin that down from the letter city officials sent to Williams County objecting, but he speculated that it might have been related to hunting.
“Do you have any hunting restrictions?” Christmann asked.
Barton testified that there aren’t any restrictions other than those the landowners themselves would post. “They are allowed to grant rights to do whatever they want on the land,” he testified.
However, much later in the day, as the hearing itself was winding down, Barton inadvertently pushed the decommissioning hot button for Christmann again. Barton was talking about the decommissioning phase and, in passing, mentioned that he believed by the time the towers would need to come down it wouldn’t be a big issue because the metal would be worth so much that farmers would just tell the company to leave the towers so they can cut them up and sell them.
Commissioner Christmann wasn’t amused.
“Maybe you said it in jest,” he said, “But it’s the first time I heard someone say something like that, and it is what scares me the most.”
He pointed out the state has hundreds of scoria pits that were never claimed because the companies owning them persuaded landowners to take a cash settlement instead of reclaiming them.
“These are not grandpa’s windmills,” he said. “They are huge industrial facilities. None of the agriculture producers would have the tools to dismantle one of these turbines.”
Christmann said he has been concerned, with thousands of wind turbines already in the state, that they could wind up abandoned just as the scoria pits once were, by companies convincing landlords to take cash settlements, or perhaps in this case, for perceived value of their metal.
The towers in the Lindahl farm would cost an estimated $80,000 each to decommission, according to earlier testimony from Barton.
“I worry that, in the future, especially since you articulated it, that we’ll get to a point when the turbines need to be decommissioned,” he said. “And I really worry that with this series of partnerships and sub corporations and whatever all you call it that partners with each other, that someday that is what we will have happening. We’ll have all these towers sitting out there, and it will become the state’s responsibility to keep the lights on so that airplanes don’t fly into them.”
Barton apologized for his comment, saying it had been a long day and that he had misspoken. He said agreements pertaining to the wind farm require a bond to be produced so that in the event the company should fail to reclaim the towers as agreed, the bond could cover the costs of decommissioning each tower.
In earlier testimony, Wayne LaGary, who helped the 28 Lindahl Wind Farm property owners craft a contract to protect them, wrote a provision that not only allows the landowners to invoke the bond should the company fail to decommission, but also allows the landowners to sue the responsible party for that failure as well.
“I am sure the motivation for them would be extraordinary for reclamation,” he testified.
Commissioners concluded the marathon hearing with thanks to the dozen or so citizens, for and against, who testified during the hearing and prepared materials for the commission’s consideration.
Commissioner Fedorchak said all the materials would be reviewed at a coming work session, and she estimated they would make a decision sometime in mid November as to whether to grant the permit or require more work of the company.
“We will go back and mitigate as many of the concerns as we can with this project,” she said. “However, we aren’t supposed to have an opinion on the actual project. It’s the criteria, and whether the company met the criteria under the law. It doesn’t matter if I love or hate wind or love or hate pipelines. It’s whether they met the criteria. That is what we are focused on.”