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With near-record growth, wind industry faces stiff challenge in ND Senate

In this file photo, Wind turbines dot the landscape around Courtenay, N.D., part of Xcel Energy's Courtenay Wind Farm. John M. Steiner / Forum News Service

BISMARCK—The state Senate will consider a bill this week that would put a two-year moratorium on new wind development in North Dakota, a proposal that critics say unfairly targets one industry.

The bill, which the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted to amend with the moratorium Friday, Feb. 17, prevents the Public Service Commission from approving an application for a wind farm that's submitted in the two years after Aug. 1. It also asks for a Legislative Management study of the "long-term energy plan for the state," taking into consideration factors like the sustainability and reliability of various energy sources and an assessment of how taxes affect the energy availability from different sources.

Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, said the amended bill is intended to guarantee that North Dakota has a "reliable and affordable source of electricity in the future" and to "save coal." He argued it's not an attack on the industry, but lawmakers should find out what effect additional wind energy projects will have.

"The thing we need is a firm plan of what the future landscape of North Dakota's electrical generation is going to look like," Cook said.

Cook noted Great River Energy's July 2016 announcement that it would end operations at is Stanton Station power plant in Mercer County because of low energy prices in the region. Great River Energy spokesman Lyndon Anderson said Monday the additional generation in this part of the market, a lot of it coming from wind, has put a "downward pressure on prices."

Anderson said the Stanton Station is still on track to close in May, 51 years after it began generating power.

The Senate proposal comes during a time of rapid growth in wind energy.

North Dakota will add about 1,000 megawatts of wind power in the 10 month-period from May 2016 through March of this year, said Randy Christmann, chairman of the Public Service Commission.

Prior to that, the state added about 2,000 megawatts over the course of 10 years.

Christmann said he didn't know enough about the proposed moratorium to have a position on it, but said commissioners would "work with what they come up with."

Christmann said he is concerned that federal subsidies on wind will cause the market to be "out of check." The Production Tax Credit, an incentive that has boosted wind projects, is being phased out over the next few years.

The wind industry experienced near-record growth that has propelled it ahead of hydropower dams as the largest source of renewable electric capacity in the U.S., the American Wind Energy Association announced this month.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, said if somebody would have proposed a moratorium on coal, oil or gas development, they would have been "shunned out of the room." She said it's possible to have a discussion on reasonable regulations that protect landowners from energy development without a moratorium.

"I don't think it's our place to protect one industry over another," said Oban, who voted against the amendment.

Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, Senate Bill 2314's primary sponsor who supported the amendment, said she believes in an "all-of-the-above energy policy," but the wind energy industry is "heavily subsidized" by the federal government.

"If everybody is paying taxes fairly and being regulated fairly, I think the market will work itself out," said Unruh, who works as an environmental specialist for a coal mine.

Cook said the bill is expected to come to the floor Wednesday.

Carlee McLeod, president of the Utility Shareholders of North Dakota, said she hopes the full Senate rejects the moratorium. McLeod, who represents utility companies that have coal as well as wind in their portfolios, said it's important for the companies to have flexibility.

"It's not really the North Dakota way to shut down a whole industry," she said.

McLeod pointed out that utility companies operate regionally, not just within one state, so a moratorium on North Dakota wind would not eliminate that competition.

"They will build that wind. It will be in a different state," McLeod said.

Bob Harms, a lobbyist for Tradewind, which is constructing the Lindahl Wind Project in Tioga, said a moratorium would cost the state an enormous amount of economic opportunity, including jobs, payments to landowners and property tax revenue.

Robert Noble, a member of the Laborers International Union of North America, said a wind project in North Dakota provided him with a good-paying job last year. He said he hopes to see continued wind development in the state.

"I want to see the world get better at clean energy," Noble said.

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