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With largest-ever N.D. wind farm planned, regulator blames coal plant closing on wind power

BISMARCK -- After receiving an application for the largest individual wind farm permit in state history, North Dakota utility regulators Wednesday warned that the continuing shift to wind power and pending shutdown of the state's oldest coal-fire...

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BISMARCK - After receiving an application for the largest individual wind farm permit in state history, North Dakota utility regulators Wednesday warned that the continuing shift to wind power and pending shutdown of the state's oldest coal-fired power plant threaten power grid reliability.

Glacier Ridge Wind Farm LLC filed an application last week asking the Public Service Commission for permission to build a 300.15-megawatt wind farm with up to 87 turbines on about 54 square miles of land five miles northeast of Valley City in Barnes County.

The subsidiary of England-based Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc. hopes to start construction in November and begin producing power in December 2019, according to the application.

Glacier Ridge has been working since 2009 to develop the project with Peak Wind Development LLC, a company wholly owned by landowners within the project area.

Commissioner Brian Kalk brought up the project during Wednesday's PSC meeting after raising concerns about the imminent loss of 189 megawatts of baseload coal-fired power generation with last week's announcement by Great River Energy that it plans to retire the Stanton Station power plant in Mercer County by May 2017.

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"As we bring in more wind and as companies continue to retire coal and potentially nuclear (power plants), the reliability of the power grid, I think, is threatened," he said.

Great River Energy said the 50-year-old plant near Stanton is no longer economic to operate with current low prices in the regional energy market. The cooperative said it's working to minimize impacts on the plant's 65 employees, who will be able to apply for openings at its other facilities.

Commissioner Randy Christmann refuted speculation that the plant is closing because it's old and inefficient.

"I think this is a result of the large movement to wind energy," he said.

North Dakota currently has 1,174 wind turbines in operation with a generating capacity of 2,134 megawatts, and the three-member PSC-currently all Republicans-has issued permits for projects totaling roughly an additional 2,100 megawatts, the latest being the Brady Wind I and II projects in Stark and Hettinger counties.

Kalk noted the Stanton plant's closing still needs approval from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator Inc., or MISO, a regional transmission organization that includes all or parts of 15 U.S. states, including North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana, as well as Manitoba, Canada.

Kalk said he expects MISO will approve the shutdown, as the region currently has excess power supply in part because of the economic downturn.

But he questioned what will happen when the economy rebounds and how quickly the baseload generation can be replaced, noting wind power is an intermittent supply and peaking plants that burn natural gas are more susceptible to price swings. Commissioner Julie Fedorchak also said consumers should be prepared for greater fluctuations in energy costs with more reliance on gas and wind.

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Christmann said Stanton Station likely won't be the last North Dakota coal plant to shut down, and while he blames the "extraordinary" federal subsidies provided to wind energy developers, he noted others often attribute it to low natural gas prices.

"I will buy that story when I start to see baseload natural gas plants being built, but I have not seen one in this region," he said.

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
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