After a brief threat of a moratorium on new wind energy projects in North Dakota, state officials have agreed to call for a study of the state’s energy landscape.
The move sidesteps pitting the coal and wind energy industries against one another — though many see the rise of one as the downfall of the other.
The reality is that both industries are struggling to surmount technological challenges that might otherwise leave them crippled. Coal needs to be cleaner; wind needs to become more reliable. Despite their faults, the energy sectors are battling one another for market shares, and the North Dakota Legislature is seeing some of the fallout as fledgling wind processors are running turbines in the face of what many characterize as more steady and reliable coal production.
Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, said legislative discussion may have converted that conversation somewhat into coal versus wind — but she stresses that wasn’t the point.
“I think it’s time to try and level the playing field," said Unruh, pointing out that the wind industry has benefited from federal incentives and wind should be regulated equally with other forms of energy production in the state.
Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, said he introduced the study amendment to his original proposal of a wind project moratorium because a serious discussion on the state’s energy future is needed. Senate Bill 2314, in its amended form, passed the Senate 42-4 shortly before the Legislature’s mid-session break.
“It’s more about reliability, and coal is the most reliable source of power we have,” said Cook, adding that technology may eventually come about to allow storage of the energy produced by wind.
Until then, he said there needs to be a primary source of energy that’s available for use on a bone-chilling minus-40 degree winter day when no wind is blowing in North Dakota.
The study is the best option, North Dakota Public Service Commission Chairman Randy Christmann said of Cook's SB2314.
“I’m not sure how that was going to work out,” Christmann said of the original version of the bill.
After the Lindahl wind farm is completed near Tioga this spring, the state will have capacity for about 3,000 megawatts of wind energy, according to Christmann, adding that about 1,000 megawatts of this will have come online since spring 2016.
About 6,000 megawatts of wind energy projects have been given approval, many of which aren’t yet under construction and with some projects likely never to be built, he said.
Robert Harms, who has lobbied at the Legislature this session on behalf of Tradewind Energy, owner of the Lindahl wind farm project, said the conversation about energy is a timely one.
“I think this gives an opportunity … to look at how our energy sector is evolving,” said Harms, who disagreed on stepping back on wind energy production to preserve coal.
He said, if that were done, North Dakota coal would still have to compete with wind and other energy types in surrounding states.
In the days before the Legislature’s mid-session break, the proposed two-year moratorium on new wind energy projects was among multiple bills relating to wind energy that were considered.
Another bill, Senate Bill 2313, passed the Senate 36-9 on Feb. 21.
SB2313 creates setbacks of 1.1 times the height of a wind turbine from the property line of a nonparticipating landowner as well as three times the height of a turbine from a quarter section of land that contains a residence of a nonparticipating landowner.
Christmann acknowledges more concerns are appearing in connection to wind projects. PSC rules include setbacks of 1.1 times the height of a wind turbine from various right of ways, such as highways. Though not in PSC rules, the agency requires a 1,400-foot setback from occupied residences.
“We’re starting to have more opposition at wind farm hearings,” said Christmann, explaining that major issues in public hearings tend to be the sound turbines produce, the visual aspect and setbacks.
From a regulatory standpoint, he said it comes down to a delicate balancing act in terms of expanding the state’s energy production and ensuring there’s enough capacity on the grid for electricity for times when demand spikes seasonally, according to Christmann.
Cook pointed out that, as plants are shut down, the result is fewer jobs as well as fewer taxes from the facilities stimulating area economies.
The study will be an important first step in preparing for the future, he said.
“We’ve just got to sit back … look at the big picture,” Cook said.