North Dakota lawmakers debate regulating wind amid national power grid fiasco
At the center of conversation was a bill backed by Republican leadership that was substantially scaled back after opposition from utility companies and the wind industry.
BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers were mulling policies to tighten the regulation of wind farms Thursday, Feb. 18, in a discussion that doubled as a referendum on the root causes of the massive power grid failure that hit parts of the country this week.
At the center of conversation was a bill backed by Republican leadership that prompted unyielding opposition from utility companies and the wind industry in the weeks since its introduction.
Objection to the bill propelled its sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, and House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, to introduce an amendment Thursday that softened the impact. The altered version of the bill, which was accepted and approved by the Senate Energy & Natural Resources committee on Thursday, would require energy developers to provide annual reports to North Dakota regulators on the reliability of the state and local grid, and to report their plans to shore up power in the future.
This is a substantially scaled down version of the original bill that Wardner previously called "lightning rod" legislation for the renewables industry . Originally, the bill aimed to create a “firming” requirement for the state's renewable providers — the practice of establishing contract agreements to guarantee back-up power, insurance for times when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.
“Nobody wants to be mandated, and that's kind of where the pushback came from,” Wardner said.
Still, the original version of the bill and the merits of a firming requirement drove much of the discussion between lawmakers.
"I believe that when we get down the road 25, 30 years from now and we have electric vehicles that we (will) have all kinds of demands on our electric grid," said Wardner, who warned against the possibilities of blackouts down the road if North Dakota forsakes coal power for wind. "And I don't believe for one minute that renewable fuels will be able to meet the needs. We're going to need all of them."
Though the bill was introduced weeks ago, Thursday’s discussion was colored by recent grid failures in Texas and other southern states that led to rolling blackouts as far north as the Dakotas and western Minnesota as the northern end of the regional grid reallocated electricity to alleviate spiking demand further south. Debates about the causes of the outages have quickly fallen along partisan lines.
“There's been a lot of misinformation about that situation this week in North Dakota and elsewhere,” said Scott Skokos, director of the Dakota Resource Council, a conservationist group. Skokos noted many politicians around the country shifted blame for grid failure to wind turbines, which were only a small factor in a much bigger problem.
“We do not recommend North Dakota make long term policy decisions based on current events that have not been yet fully understood,” he said.
But others testified that defenses of wind power this week have not accounted for the limitations of renewable resources.
“I commend North Dakota for being proactive because this is a discussion that far predated this event,” said Mike Nasi, an environmental and energy lawyer who dialed in from Austin, Texas, where he said his power was only recently restored.
Nasi said widespread reporting attributing the cause for the grid failures to frozen natural gas lines and coal plants in the south misses the reality that growing reliance on intermittent renewable power sources leaves grids vulnerable to sudden demand spikes.
As a result, Nasi said, firming is a crucial step for renewable energy on the power grid that developers are not inclined to take without more stringent regulation.
“People talk about firming, but unless it's actually required, it is not something that occurs transactionally in the marketplace right now,” he said.
But for representatives from the wind and investor-owned utilities industries, the firming requirement was a non-starter. Renewable energy advocates argued that mandated firming would chase wind development out of the state and do little to benefit the state's declining coal industry, since wind farms could invest in neighboring states that fall on the same grid.
One lobbying document drafted by a major national energy company, supplied to The Forum by Wardner, called the original bill a “Job Killer that HARMS Electric Reliability.”
While the wind and utilities industries pushed hard against the bill in prior weeks, the tempered version proposed Thursday ended up getting stamps of approval from Montana-Dakota Utilities, a major utility provider in the state, and the Wind Industry of North Dakota.
Tony Clark, a former Fargo legislator and state and federal energy regulator who advises the North Dakota wind industry, said early analyses of this week's events suggest that "North Dakota did a lot right." The revised version of the bill, he said, should help drive a needed conversation about the appropriate energy mix on the grid, a debate that he expects will pick up in other states as well.
Members of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources committee voted 5-1 in favor of the amended version of the bill Thursday, sending it to the chamber floor.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.