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Wyatt Gilbertson, 19, received his certificate as a wind energy technician this weekend at LRSC, and is in the final stage of getting a job in the industry in Hettinger, ND. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A North Dakota panel called for 5,000 megawatts of wind power by 2020. The state is falling short

BISMARCK — North Dakota is falling well short of an industry advisory panel's recommendation for wind power generation, though a state regulator said developers are still showing interest in the state.

The EmPower Commission, which reports to the Legislature and is responsible for "developing comprehensive energy policy recommendations" for the state, issued a report a decade ago that called for boosting wind generation to 5,000 megawatts by 2020. It noted the sparsely populated state had abundant wind and land available as well as "public support for wind development."

But there is only about 3,150 megawatts of wind power in service here today, according to data provided by the Public Service Commission Thursday, June 13. Though more projects have been permitted, Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said the 5,000 megawatt figure "might be optimistic."

"It's going to be a stretch," said Mark Nisbet, Xcel Energy's principal manager in North Dakota who's a member of the EmPower Commission. "We probably took that measurement right at the peak when there was quite a bit of wind being added."

State lawmakers created the commission in 2007. It's chaired by the state's commerce commissioner, and the governor is required to appoint a dozen members representing various sectors of the energy industry, including oil, coal, wind and electric utilities.

Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer said the EmPower Commission would meet later this year to review its goals.

In a 2012 report, the commission said construction of new wind facilities slowed down in part because of the prior economic downturn. It also faulted congressional inaction over a tax credit that has since been extended and is being phased out.

More recently, the three-member PSC denied a siting permit for a wind farm in Burke County Wednesday following opposition from state and federal wildlife agencies. Earlier this year, the Burleigh County Commission rejected a wind farm that divided local residents.

State lawmakers in 2017 floated but ultimately backed away from a proposal to impose a moratorium on new wind energy development. Proponents worried about the loss of coal-fired power generation.

Nisbet argued the state sees economic benefits through wind energy development, such as tax revenue and lease payments to landowners, amid increased concerns about climate change.

"There's a potential right now that South Dakota is being pretty aggressive about attracting wind and North Dakota's a little bit ambivalent," Nisbet said.

Still, North Dakota ranks 10th in the country for installed wind capacity, the American Wind Energy Association said. In 2018, wind provided about one-fourth of the state's net electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Fedorchak, a Republican, said she hasn't seen a slowdown in wind farm siting permits, and state regulators have approved about 800 megawatts so far this year. Kommer said the state has been welcoming to development of all energy sources, including wind.

Dave Nehring, who founded North Dakota Visionkeepers last year to help grassroots organizations fighting wind projects in their communities, said the state has reached its saturation point for wind energy. He blamed the turbines' proliferation for a rise in electrical prices, though similar claims have been disputed by industry officials.

"We don't need it in the state of North Dakota," Nehring said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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