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North Dakota fines Xcel Energy over wind farm light suppressant delay

The Minneapolis-based utility was fined $4,500 for failing to install technology to suppress the red blinking lights on a Stutsman County wind farm ahead of a state-imposed, end of 2021 deadline.

Wind turbines about a traditional farm July 7, 2014, south of Wilton, N.D.
Wind turbines about a traditional farm July 7, 2014, south of Wilton, N.D.
Michael Vosburg / The Forum
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BISMARCK — Regulators on the North Dakota Public Service Commission have fined Xcel Energy $4,500 for failing to have functioning technology installed to suppress the red blinking lights on a Stutsman County wind farm by a state-imposed, end of 2021 deadline.

The Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy missed the Dec. 31 deadline to have technology operating on its Courtenay Wind Farm north of Jamestown that would prevent the lights from blinking unless aircraft came into the area. The utility company met the state's requirement nine days late.

Public Service Commission members voted unanimously on Wednesday to fine Xcel $500 for each day that it wasn't in compliance.

Two wind farms in North Dakota remain out of compliance with the state’s light mitigation laws, Public Service Commission staff said Wednesday. Aside from Courtenay, two other wind farms missed the deadline, with Avangrid Renewable's Rugby Wind Farm, near Rugby, and Onward Energy Holding's Sunflower Wind Farm, near Dickinson, still out of compliance.

The red blinking lights on the tops of turbines are a recurrent nighttime nuisance to residents who live near wind farms, and North Dakota's light mitigation rules are the result of a 2017 law that required existing wind farms to install the technology by the end of 2021.

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Regulators on the Public Service Commission have expressed frustration in recent months as numerous wind farm operators pushed up to the deadline or applied for extensions to install the technology, noting that companies had four years' notice to get into compliance with the law. The three-member panel rejected nine total extension requests from wind farm operators and granted one, according to commission spokesperson Stacy Eberl.

Xcel informed the Public Service Commission in mid-December that it had installed its light mitigating system but that 63 of the beacons weren't functioning properly. The company followed up with the commission in January to say that it had rewired the system and that it was up and running on the ninth day of that month, missing the end of year deadline.

Xcel told Public Service Commissioners in December that it was running into landowner concerns about the location of a radar tower, as well as pandemic related delays like supply chain and labor shortages, but the commission rejected their request for more time.

A spokesperson for Xcel noted that the company has installed light mitigating technology on one other wind farm in North Dakota and another in Minnesota.

"Xcel Energy takes our obligations to the communities that host our facilities seriously, and we will continue to work closely with all community stakeholders to address and manage any issues related to our wind farms over the coming months and years," the company said.

Two North Dakota wind farms have also received waivers from the Public Service Commission to apply the light mitigation requirement, Eberl said, including Basin Electric Power Cooperative's Prairie Winds ND1 farm in Ward County. That wind farm received an exemption because of concerns raised by the Minot Air Force Base that radar-based systems risked alerting enemies to military flight patterns in the vicinity of the nuclear missile silos scattered across north-central North Dakota.

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

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