WILLISTON — Cold winters and an industrial-based economy have forced North Dakota to rely on coal to meet demanding electric needs. But now, its sweeping wind gusts are attracting turbines.
In efforts to feed the power grid and reap millions of dollars in the process, Lindahl Wind Project LLC, plans to generate 150 megawatts of electricity from 75 turbines four miles north of Tioga. Thirty landowners, convinced the wind farm project will produce clean energy and diversify the rural economy, have signed leases for 13,000 acres of land, of which 50 acres would be impacted by the project.
Officials in Lindahl, Sauk and Tioga townships have recommended approval of the project; however, the city of Tioga and some potential neighbors of the 492-foot turbines have expressed mistrust in the landowner-initiated project that involves out-of-state business partners.
Last week, the Williams County Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-1 to recommend denial of the project. Board members recommended the Williams County Commission deny the applicant’s request for a conditional use permit on agricultural land and a separate variance request from setback requirements. Meanwhile, the applicant must also get approval from the North Dakota Public Service Commission before moving forward.
“It seems like you’re trying to shoehorn a lot into Lindahl Township,” said County Commissioner Dan Kalil, who serves on the planning and zoning board. “There’s a lot of activity in that small part of the world.”
The proposed variance would follow county ordinances that require building turbines more than 1,400 feet from occupied structures, such as housing. The project increased turbine setbacks from non-participating occupied homes from 1,400 feet to 3,500 feet or more. But the variance steered against the ordinance and requested that turbines could be built less than 1,400 feet from unoccupied structures, such as oil wells.
“Lindahl Township has 285 oil wells,” wrote Joel Vagts and Stephanie Vagts, residents of Tioga, in a letter to the planning and zoning board last week. “For safety reasons, please do not allow wind turbines closer to oil well pads. It’s like putting the wick in a stick of dynamite.”
Historically, a group of landowners formed Lindahl Wind Farm, LLC after a decade of exploration in 2010 to develop the project, according to the board’s staff report and a company presentation.
Lindahl Wind Project bought the assets of Lindahl Wind Farm in 2014 and began assessing 48,806 acres before refining the project to 13,000 acres and limiting the area to Lindahl, Sauk and Tioga townships. One parcel remains in Tioga Township, but it will sit without a turbine. All participating landowners have signed Wind Energy Easement Agreements.
The Lindahl Wind Project executed a power purchase agreement with Bismarck-based Basin Electric Power Cooperative, the power supplier for Williams, Mountrail and Burke counties, according to the board’s staff report and the company presentation.
Tradewind Energy Inc., of Kansas, purchased the project in 2014 and has been developing it for Enel Green Power North America Inc., of Massachusetts, which will eventually own and operate the project. The Lindahl Wind Project has since become a wholly owned subsidiary of the EGP.
“I will admit this is a huge project,” said Brice Barton, senior project development manager at Tradewind Energy, who previously submitted a 1,000-page conditional use permit and variance application to the Williams County Development Services. In response to concerns about building turbines near oil wells, he added: “We have coordinated with oil and gas. A majority of our wind farms are built in oil and gas territory, so we’ve worked with them before.”
The $250 million “lightning protected” project will serve regional electricity demands, said Barton, who cited engineering firm Bismarck-based KLJ’s prediction for the North Dakota Transmission Authority: From 2012 to 2032, the 43 counties within the oil-rich Williston Basin will require 2,512 megawatts of additional electrical generation.
“We are addressing the tremendous growth in our region in a number of ways,” said Paul Sukut, CEO and general manager at Basin Electric in a statement. “Purchased power is one of them. The contract with Tradewind Energy will complement our resource mix and help ensure the lowest cost energy for our members.”
Tradewind Energy has found support from township officials, including supervisors from the Lindahl Township and Tioga Township, who have publicly disclosed financial interests in the project.
Robert Harms, the former North Dakota Republican party chairman, lobbied on the project’s behalf during the 2015 legislative session. Harms, who was replaced earlier this month as the GOP chairman, is a Bismarck attorney and former legal adviser to former Govs. Ed Schafer and John Hoeven. “I like the fact that we have power coming to this region that we need,” Harms told the planning and zoning board.
The entire project would earn $701,994 worth of annual wind farm tax and more than $17.5 million over the next 25 years for state and county coffers, township general funds, school districts and other county expenses, Barton said. Construction could start in late 2015 and begin operations in December 2016.
“We’re all in this together as farmers, ranchers and neighbors,” said Jerol Gohrick, a resident and board supervisor in Lindahl Township who voted for approval of the variance after disclosing a financial interest in the project.
“This project is the chance for a lot of people to get an income that comes back to them as landowners,” said Tim Sundhagen, a resident of Tioga who farms his land in the project area. “These people have had to bear the burden of what’s going on around here, and this is there chance.”
When Kalil asked the financial return to landowners, Sundhagen responded: “It’s enough to make it worthwhile. It’s significant.”
Several landowners in opposition told the planning and zoning board not to forget Tradewind Energy and eventually Enel Green Power North America will receive millions of dollars in state-initiated tax incentives.
“I do not want to pay that money,” said Todd Beasley, a resident of Tioga, who added that he was “not against wind farms” but urged the board to vote against the variance request.
Tradewind Energy did not shy from admitting the “industry is subsidized.” “The result for the local people here is the power’s cheap,” Barton said. “It’s windier here than almost anywhere in the United States… There’s no place that needs power like this place right here.”
In a letter submitted to the board, Beasley wrote: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have been at the beginning of [oil development] knowing what we know now? We are at the beginning stages of [building the wind farm] here in Williams County and wouldn’t it be nice if we set standards that our next generation can look back at and say we were ahead of the curve? Not look back and be ashamed of these decisions.”
In her own letter submitted last week, Mary Hoseth, a resident of Lindahl Township, told the board she was a 70-year-old widow wanting to retire someday from her position at Hess Corporation in Tioga. “I am having a hard time figuring out why some people are opposed to this, as I think that having a clean alternate source of power is about as good as it gets. At least we do not have to worry about salt water or oil spills,” Hoseth wrote. “It would be nice to actually be able to get something in place before we actually need it instead of having to play catch up when power does become a problem.”