Bruce Roder and his sons farm just about everything. The family has wheat, soybeans, peas, canola — “sometimes corn,” he says — all on about 10,000 acres of land, spread across multiple farms, not far from Langdon, N.D.
For years, though, the land has sprouted another big cash crop: three towering wind turbines, gently spinning on the prairie wind, all worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4,000 in payments each year.
For Roder, a local township supervisor, the arrangement makes a lot of sense. The turbines are quiet. He’s never seen one of them kill a bird. And he remembers exactly when they were built — not long after his dad died.
"I was just thinking what Dad would have thought,” he said this week. “It brought some good jobs, and the tax base is larger."
The wind turbines on Roder’s farm are among the nearly 1,900 in the state, according to the most recent numbers from American Clean Power Association, sprouting their gossamer wings all across North Dakota during the last few decades. That’s come during a remarkable, explosive expansion in the industry.
At Basin Electric Power Cooperative, based in Bismarck, 11% of the company’s power portfolio was renewable energy in 2000. But by 2019, it had grown to 26%, and was expected to rise. The state as a whole had somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 wind industry jobs in 2019, according to the American Clean Power Association.
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Wind, in short, has irreversibly reshaped the North Dakota economy.
Part of this has been market forces. Another part has been by government design. For years, federal wind tax credits have helped support the industry, offering tax discounts for the amount of energy windmills produce and helping subsidize their construction. It’s worked for a long time but increasingly, those tax credits are coming under fire.
Two important wind energy credits were given a brief extension in the most recent coronavirus relief bill: the “production” tax credit and the “investment” tax credit. Both help subsidize the kinds of wind turbines that are on the Roders’ farm and around the country.
But for a swath of the energy industry and some lawmakers, the government’s assistance for wind is starting to wear out its welcome.
“We're starting to see energy market distortion, because there's so much energy with all of these new facilities coming on the grid, and really stagnant demand for energy,” said Ben Fladhammer, a spokesman for Minnkota Power Cooperative. That influx causes a problem as companies manage coal and nuclear plants — the energy-generating workhorses in the energy industry — which can still churn out power when the breeze won’t and the temperature plummets. “Our fear long term is that we're going to see grid instability.”
Caught up in the middle of all this are North Dakota communities. In central North Dakota, coal mines and coal-powered electrical plants are the cornerstones of local economies, and local residents often see the coal industry as essential to their lives. Rightly or wrongly, they also sometimes see wind as a threat.
In Grand Forks, the wind industry supports about 900 jobs at LM Wind Power’s manufacturing facility, which turns out components for wind turbines. The company is clearly sensitive to market changes: it announced the closure of a manufacturing plant in Arkansas last year, citing an industry shift toward longer wind blades. The decision affected nearly 500 employees, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
When contacted for this article, the company referred the Herald back to the American Clean Power Association.
Grand Forks City Administrator Todd Feland declined to take a position on the tax credits — though he said the city is strongly behind LM Wind Power’s success, as well as an energy strategy in North Dakota that supports a broad range of power sources.
“We’re not at a technical place where we can argue how (a tax credit shift) affects things,” Feland said.
But there’s political pressure against extending the credits further. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both North Dakota Republicans, disapprove of extending the wind production tax credit in particular.
“Wind energy can now compete on its own in the market, which is why in late 2015, we brokered a bipartisan agreement to phase down the wind (production tax credit), which should have permanently ended in 2019, and have opposed these recent one-year extensions,” Hoeven said in a statement provided to the Herald by his office. He noted his support for tax credits that encourage lower coal emissions.
Cramer, in an interview with the Herald, said he’s worried about wind tax credits in general, but argued that the production tax credit in particular scrambles energy markets.
“It’s not that I’m against wind energy, but I am against tipping the scales of the economy,” he said.
A favorite example of skeptics for wind or wind tax credits is last summer’s blackouts in California, when the state’s grid — heavily reliant on renewable power — was roiled by gaps in the power supply.
But the issues in California aren’t only about the wind. The Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, points out in a recent report that blackouts unfolded as California weathered a massive heatwave, summer wildfires and the failure of natural gas power. The report points to “structural problems in California’s power market.”
And it’s true, too, that one of the biggest complaints about wind is that it can’t provide steady power like coal or nuclear can. Researchers are inching toward a solution on that problem, too. Leaders at UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center, speaking to Prairie Business earlier this month, said scientists continue work on developing the kinds of large-scale batteries that store up wind power, making it just as reliable as any other energy source.
And Jeff Danielson, a regional director with the American Clean Power Association — focusing on multiple states in the Midwest – said the wind production tax credit still remains a boon for innovation, helping drive down the cost of newer, more efficient blades and turbines. There are plenty of other subsidized energy sources, he points out, and he argued that states manage their grids carefully to minimize any risk of instability.
And he added that the “market distortions” some see in the market aren’t quite so simple.
“Wind and solar will still be the lowest cost of new energy on the grid, whether or not the (production tax credit) is there,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s a correct conclusion.”
On Bruce Roder’s farm, there’s not too much thought spared for the tax credits or energy politics. For now, he’s happy with the turbines — and he’s happy to support whatever keeps them coming to the community.
"We all know it's a good deal,” he said.