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 Missouri 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.
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, 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 are a win-win situation that includes both the preservation of the coal plant and new wind turbines in the area.
“I’m not personally anti-wind,” she 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 located 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 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,” he 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.
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, 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 Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at [email protected]