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North Dakota coal counties look at dropping wind restrictions, but snags remain

Two years ago, McLean and Mercer counties both passed policies restricting the development of new wind farms amid growing anxiety in coal country about plans to shut down North Dakota's largest coal-fired power plant.

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Wind turbines dot the landscape around Courtenay, N.D., part of Xcel Energy's Courtenay Wind Farm.
John M. Steiner / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — A pair of North Dakota coal counties that passed rules restricting the construction of new wind farms two years ago are hashing out new ordinances that could reopen the coveted areas for wind development.

The restrictions by McLean and Mercer counties, both in the heart of North Dakota coal country, came as concerns mounted in 2020 that Coal Creek Station, North Dakota’s largest coal-fired power plant, would be shuttered and see much of its electrical generation replaced by wind turbines. McLean County first adopted zoning restrictions making it harder to connect to a valuable transmission line tied to the coal plant, while neighboring Mercer County followed up with a two year moratorium on new wind projects.

While North Dakota leaders rallied to find a new owner for Coal Creek Station and rescue the plant from shutting down, coal advocates and renewable energy companies have been hard at work negotiating new policies for wind development in coal country.

McLean County, which is home to Coal Creek Station, is slated to hold a hearing Monday, April 18, on amendments to its zoning rules that could roll back restrictions added two years ago. A draft proposal has been workshopped by county officials and a Virginia-based clean energy company looking to build the state’s largest wind farm near Coal Creek Station.

Just over the Missouri River, Mercer County has already adopted a new ordinance, laying the groundwork for local wind policy ahead of an expiration date on the county’s wind moratorium early next month.

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But the decision by Mercer County officials came as a surprise to a group of wind and coal industry stakeholders who had been collaborating to develop a new ordinance for the commission. A Facebook post by the grassroots group Faces of North Dakota Coal, which is part of the working group collaborating with the wind industry in Mercer County, called the decision "the worst possible" outcome and said it "ensures that this 'political football' won't go away anytime soon."

A tale of two counties

Both McLean and Mercer counties are located on top of vast stores of lignite coal, have advantageous conditions for wind farms and are hubs for valuable transmission lines, whose space for new energy generation is tight.

In McLean, State's Attorney Ladd Erickson, the architect of the county's wind restrictions, has been fielding input from local groups and renewable energy companies to craft new rules for renewable energy development.

Earlier this year, the terms of the Coal Creek transfer between its current owner, the Minnesota-based Great River Energy, and incoming owner, the Bismarck-based Rainbow Energy Marketing, were amended to include plans for a 400 megawatt wind farm near the power plant in McLean County. A project of the Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy, the development would be the largest stand-alone wind farm in North Dakota.

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McLean County State's Attorney Ladd Erickson.
Tom Stromme, Bismarck Tribune

McLean County commission chair Steve Lee said the Apex project is estimated to require tens of thousands of acres. While local officials aren’t looking to impede the large project, Lee said they want to pass an ordinance that accounts for the sentiments of both landowners who want turbines on their property and those who do not.

“There’s a balancing act,” he said. “We want to protect our property owners and their rights, but we certainly don’t want to jeopardize Coal Creek Station.”

According to a working draft of the proposed new amendments supplied by Erickson, McLean County and Apex are in agreement on much of the contents, though several unresolved items remain. Those include one provision that would allow county officials to reject a permit application if the project could have a “material adverse impact” for property values, agriculture or wildlife, another provision requiring a wind developer to have buyers for their power prior to permitting, and a third provision allowing the commission wide latitude to deny project locations by creating "avoidance" areas.

In comments submitted ahead of Monday’s hearing, Apex said it has “significant concerns” about the provision allowing the county to designate these "avoidance" areas. Wind farms require years of planning, analysis, environmental studies and regulatory hoops, and the company said “it is essential” for local requirements to be clear “up front and equally applied to all projects.”

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One of the major restrictions applied by McLean County two years ago was a one mile buffer from the Missouri River and its reservoirs for turbines and power lines, a provision that blocks wind farms needing a way to connect to the transmission line over the water. The proposed amendments retain that rule, but provide an exception for transmission lines “that must cross” the water.

Erickson declined to comment for this story ahead of Monday's hearing. After the announcement of the Apex project, the McLean County state's attorney said local reception for the wind farm remained to be seen.

“Some areas might be receptive and some areas not. I think it’s all gonna be about the location," he said at the time.

PHOTO: Coal Creek Station
Negotiations continue in the search for a new owner for Coal Creek Station, North Dakota's largest coal-fired power plant. The effort faces a looming summer deadline for completion.
Contributed / Great River Energy

The path forward for wind is less clear-cut in Mercer County, where the moratorium is set to lapse next month but recent actions by the commission have left wind and coal industry stakeholders confused and unsure of next steps.

County commissioners there voted 3-2 last week to adopt a new ordinance, laying the groundwork for a local wind policy if the moratorium is allowed to expire. Commissioner Gene Wolf, who backed passing the ordinance, said the county needed to stop "kicking this can down the road" and get rules into place before the moratorium's expiration date. Changes could be made later to finalize the ordinance, he said.

The county’s decision came as a surprise to a group of coal and wind industry representatives who had been collaborating to develop an ordinance agreeable to both sides. The working group, which Mercer County commissioners designated last July to tackle several areas of contention in the zoning rules, included representatives from Faces of North Dakota Coal and NextEra Energy, which is pursuing the proposed Garrison Butte wind farm in Mercer.

Faces of North Dakota Coal member Mark Pierce said the county’s decision to move forward without their task force's input felt like the “carpet was pulled out from underneath” them. He said that while the coal advocacy group and the wind industry don't see eye to eye on everything, they were making headway and had ironed out most of their disagreements.

The ordinance that Mercer County passed has numerous gaps and errors, Pierce said, and is “effectively a ban” on new wind farms in the area. He added that if the county uses the newly passed ordinance to develop its long-term wind policy, as several commissioners have said they intend to do, it will result in a “procedural quagmire.”

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The day before the Mercer County commission passed its new rules, representatives from Faces of North Dakota Coal and NextEra sent a joint-letter to the commission asking them for a 60 day extension and urging them not to pass a different ordinance. The May expiration date on the moratorium wasn't a pressing deadline, they added, since they were not aware of any wind projects that would be imminently filing for permits in Mercer County, including NextEra's.

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Clay Cameron, a project developer at NextEra Energy, and Mark Pierce, a member of the grassroots group Faces of North Dakota Coal, told Mercer County commissioners on Wednesday, July 7, 2021, that they would collaborate to hash out differences over a local policy governing new wind development in the county, which is currently under a wind moratorium. Adam Willis / The Forum

Mercer County Commission Chair Travis Frey said he supports the county reopening for wind development but stressed the importance of preserving landowner, coal sector and tourism interests at the same time.

“Is it going to be the easiest county for you to have a wind farm? No,” said Frey. “We’re just saying that if you’re going to be part of this community, we’re not going to trade coal for you.” 

Frey voted against passage of the new ordinance last week, but he said he thinks it's a good document to work from as the county continues to craft a longer-term wind policy. He added that the commission tasked the NextEra and Faces of North Dakota Coal representatives with a narrow task of finding resolution on two sticking points, but the two sides came back with separate edits on the entire ordinance.

Remaining points of disagreement in the new ordinance include two provisions that would require a wind developer to show that they have a buyer for their power within six months of approval, and that they include an agreement with grid operators to connect to the grid in their permit application. In a red-line document supplied by Frey, NextEra asked that both of those provisions be struck from the ordinance entirely.

Pierce said that while he supported the moratorium in Mercer County two years ago, he viewed it as a short-term solution. The reality is that many people place a premium on the green energy produced by wind turbines, and his county has the opportunity to create a “blueprint” for how coal and renewable energy can work together.

“A wind ordinance that nobody likes in its entirety," but which provides a road map for the two industries going forward, "probably will end up being a good ordinance,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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