Posted 10/13/15 (Tue)
By Kevin Killough
Last week saw what may be the final showdown in a long permitting saga for a wind farm north of Tioga.
The Lindahl Wind Farm would become the first in the state’s oil patch if it’s approved.
“The wind resource here is amazing,” said Brice Barton, Brice Barton, project develop manager for Tradewind Energy, during a break Thursday in a hearing by the North Dakota Public Service Commission (PSC).
An audience of residents filled the conference room at Neset Consulting Service in Tioga, to testify both for and against the project, which has been a source of contention between landowners who want to generate revenue from the project and residents who have concerns about the safety of wind turbines and their potential to further disturb the peace of the North Dakota countryside.
“I don’t want to look at them. I don’t want to hear them,” resident Kathy Hove said.
Despite passionate testimonies on both sides, all three members of the PSC expressed gratitude for the civility used by members of the public making comment on the project.
Commissioner Brian Kalk compared the respect displayed at the Tioga hearing to the lack of civility at a hearing in another part of the state.
“The community just tore each other apart,” he said.
Barton described the project, which covers an area almost entirely inside Lindahl Township, with its southern borders lying four miles north of Tioga.
It will consist of 75 turbines generating 150 megawatts of electricity.
The project was initiated by area landowners as a business venture. About 30 landowners are currently participating in the project’s development.
Barton recounted the public outreach the company performed over the course of satisfying requirements for the Williams County conditional use permitting process.
While the project had many supporters, it faced opposition both from residents living outside the project area and those within the project area who chose not to lease.
He said the company made several concessions to try to address the concerns raised, including eliminating large sections from its project area, as well as removing some of the original turbine sites. They also increased the minimum setback from non-participating homes to at least 3,500 feet.
“Only three non-participating homes are within one mile of a proposed turbine,” Barton testified.
Despite these concessions, Barton said, the Tioga Commission voted to recommend the county deny the permit. The township boards of Tioga, Lindahl, and Sauk Valley all recommended approval, but the Williams County Planning and Zoning Board voted to deny the permit.
Ultimately, the Williams County Commission voted to approve the permit, allowing the company to move forward on the state level.
At the PSC hearing, the commissioners asked the company to address issues including reclamation, safety with respect to pipelines, and the potential for turbines or ice to fly off and harm people or property.
The PSC may require the wind farm owner to buy a bond after 10 years, and Barton said the leases contain language requiring decommissioning.
Commissioner Randy Christmann raised concerns about how much assurance bonding will provide a couple of decades down the road, especially if multiple mergers or acquisitions have buried liabilities and made it difficult, if not impossible, to identify who is liable.
“These things get built, you can’t find them anymore…Why shouldn’t I look at this as a shell game?” Christmann asked.
Barton said Lindahl Windfarm LLC, which is a consortium of landowners in the area who initiated the project, will be the main entity throughout the life of the farm. So, while Tradewind and its partners may change names, the original company will be there throughout the life of the project.
Commission Chair Julie Fedorchak cited concerns she read about in earlier reporting in the Tioga Tribune about ice breaking off the blades and causing damage or injuries.
Barton said the company has employees on site, so these concerns matter not only to protecting residents but also the company’s employees.
“Ice can build up on blades. It’s probably less likely in this environment because it’s a drier cold,” Barton said.
If ice forms on the blades during operation, Barton explained, it can cause an imbalance in their spin. The turbines are designed to shut off in the event of such vibrations to avoid equipment damage.
“We don’t want abnormal vibrations in the machine,” Barton said, so workers would remove ice before allowing blades to resume spinning at full speed.
After encouraging public comment, commissioners listened to over six hours of testimony from two-dozen area residents, both in favor and against the project.
Sen. David Rust (R-Tioga) is among the project’s supporters.
“I have friends on both sides of this issue, and passionate about it,” he said.
After hearing both sides, he said he concluded the benefits would outweigh negative impacts of the project. He said it would provide an alternative energy source, which would help demand. He also expressed support for the rights of the property owners who initiated the project.
The tax revenue will benefit the entire community, Rust said.
Jodeen Bergstrom-Dean, who has land on the border of Tioga and Lindahl townships, spoke against the project, citing impacts on her livestock. She said she’s seen the dust from traffic related to oil and gas development cause illnesses in her animals in recent years. And her horses, she said, would be bothered by the turbine noise.
She is also concerned about the disturbance to the beauty of the night sky.
“Those flashing lights. To me, that’s the big city,” she said.
Bergstrom-Dean requested the turbines be moved further away from town. She also wants to see more dust control.
Other residents countered these concerns, saying animals will get used to the noise. Jodie Sagaser said people were concerned when cars were invented how they would frighten horses, but the animals are used to them today.
“I look forward to introducing my horses to towers,” she said.
Tim Sundhagen, another supporter, said the tower lights won’t be nearly as disruptive as natural gas flares.
“The flashing lights on the tower couldn’t compare to the flares around here,” he said.
Both Sagaser and Sundhagen are landowners participating in the project development.
Benefits and problems
Stephanie Vagts spoke against the project, citing all the noise and congestion rural residents have endured in the past few years due to the oil boom.
“The people of North Dakota have had to sacrifice many incentives of rural living, all for energy,” Vagts said. “It’s not fair to ask this community to sacrifice more for an unreliable, expensive form of energy.”
Commissioner Kalk asked if Vagts if she was approached to participate in the leases for the project. She said she had not. Kalk then asked if she would be open to the project if she were compensated for the inconveniences.
“I’m a hard person to buy off,” she replied.
The nearest proposed turbine to her home is 6,940 feet.
Vagts is not alone in her concerns about congestion. Brian, Jason, and Kathy Hove all expressed concerns about turbines in an area near their home. They want them moved farther away.
Barton said the company has considered the Hoves’ requests but can’t see any feasible way to move those turbines and still maintain all the setbacks and other considerations the project demands.
“We need to put 150 megawatts in a box,” Barton said.
Several people, including Kevin McGinnity, spoke about the benefits of economic diversification the project will bring. He said with the oil industry tanking, the project is of even greater value for jobs and economic development.
Mary Hoseth said the project is needed to satisfy growing energy demands in the area.
“Living in the country, I’ve dealt with power outages,” she said.
More to come
The PSC is expected to make a decision in four to six weeks, but many factors can extend that period.
If approved, the Lindahl Wind Farm may be the first of other wind farms to be built in the Bakken. A wind farm is currently being proposed for the Bull Butte Township, north of Williston. It’s still in the local permitting phases.
Fedorchak said the PSC is holding more and more hearings on these projects, and the state is likely to see a lot more. Not only does the state have valuable wind resources, but President Obama is proposing the Clean Power Plan, which will restrict development of coal-powered generation while providing larger subsidies to renewable energy.
“You are going to see a lot more wind development if the CPP goes through,” she said. “The night sky will be very different.”
Stephen Champagne with Enel Green Power, a partner with Tradewind, said the CPP is a long ways off and its passage is uncertain. It will see a lot of political and legal challenges before it becomes law. Whatever the degree of wind development the nation sees, North Dakota is likely to be a prime location for these projects.
Based on data collected at the company’s testing towers, Barton testified, the Lindahl site has some of the best wind in the entire company’s portfolio.