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Wind and coal seek common ground under North Dakota's wind moratorium

After Mercer County leaders came to a stalemate over policies to govern new wind projects this week, the commissioners laid out plans to bring wind and coal industry representatives together to hash out differences this summer. The county has been under a wind moratorium for over a year but has looked to get new rules on the books in anticipation of the suspension lifting or lapsing.

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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
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STANTON, N.D. — A year of tension between North Dakota wind and coal power found brief reprieve this week as leaders in one coal country county laid out plans to bring the two sides together to hash out their differences over local wind development provisions.

Mercer County, one of three counties responsible for the bulk of North Dakota's coal production, is currently under a wind moratorium barring the construction of new wind turbines in the area — a measure the county adopted a year ago in response to the announcement that the state’s largest coal plant, Coal Creek Station, was scheduled to close and see much of its generation replaced by wind farms.

Mercer's moratorium is set to expire in March of 2022, and county officials have spent the last year developing a new ordinance to govern wind development before the suspension is lifted or lapses. But after hearing testimony from wind and coal advocates on Wednesday, July 7, county commissioners came to a stalemate over the new policy.

Instead of voting on the ordinance, the five-member panel tabled their decision to mid-September to allow time for collaborative meetings between the two sometimes adversarial industries to resolve differences over local policies governing wind development.

Though Coal Creek Station is across the river in McLean County, the Mercer County moratorium, as well as the proposed wind ordinance, have direct consequences for a slated 152-megawatt Garrison Butte Wind project. That wind farm, which was originally permitted for the Canadian company Capital Power, was recently acquired by NextEra Energy, one of the largest renewable energy developers in the world.

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Anna Novak, a Hazen resident and member of grassroots group Faces of North Dakota Coal, has advocated for changes to the ordinance that would put tighter restrictions on new wind farms — provisions she said could be important for preserving the lives of other coal plants in the area.

Wednesday’s meeting came just days after the unveiling of Coal Creek's new owner, the Bismarck-based Rainbow Energy, in a pending transaction that would rescue the 1,150 megawatt plant from shutting down. Novak noted that the terms of that deal in McLean County have resulted in a win-win deal that includes both the preservation of the coal plant and new wind turbines in the area.

“I’m not personally anti-wind,” Novak told the commission, noting that she would be glad to see her county reach a similar middle ground to the one found in McLean County. “But until then, no matter what the wind industry tells us, it will replace our coal energy, and it'll take our jobs with it.”

Novak has asked commissioners to make two changes: One would require developers to have their power agreement in place prior to permitting, and the other would bar wind projects from building on top of coal reserves, which could be developed for mining later. She submitted a stack of close to 350 community letters supporting those changes.

In the wake of controversy over the slated shutdown of Coal Creek Station, Mercer and McLean counties have become battlegrounds for the future of North Dakota’s energy production. Both counties are 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.

Roy Rasch, a farmer and rancher who has leased land for the Garrison Butte project, said that the offers he receives for wind development on his property are substantially more lucrative than the offers for coal extraction, and he balked at the prospect of county ordinances dictating which deals he can take.

“They want a complete monopoly so they’re gonna tell me what I’m gonna get. No. That’s not gonna happen,” Rasch said. “This ordinance is moving away from providing public safety to giving a monopoly to an industry — and an industry that, from what I can see, can’t compete.”

The commission appointed one member, Liza Taylor, to facilitate collaborations between wind and coal interests and asked the two sides to return to the county by mid-September with their submissions for the ordinance. Clay Cameron, a project developer with NextEra, said his company would participate, while Faces of North Dakota Coal member Mark Pierce also agreed to contribute.

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Separate from the changes put forward by Novak, Commissioner Marvin Schwehr said he wanted to see the removal of a provision that would put a five year cap on wind project permits, since it could drive off developers concerned about the timeline.

News of the wind and coal summit was welcomed by wind advocates in attendance, including Tammy Ibach, the director of the wind advocacy group North Dakotans for Comprehensive Energy Solutions, who said that, to her knowledge, such a collaboration has never happened in the state before.

“It’s positive. It says that the window is open to wind development, and they’re listening to both industries,” she said.

“Everyone doesn’t have to be happy about it — rainbows and colorful,” Commission Chairman Gene Wolf said after the meeting. “Just get us something we can live with.”

The county has not yet made plans to address its standing moratorium on wind development.

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

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