Xcel’s N.D. bird fight may be over; EnXco, the developer of a wind project, has refunded the utility’s $100M deposit
The disagreement between Xcel Energy Inc. and a business partner over a controversial North Dakota wind farm may have blown over.
Project developer EnXco has refunded Xcel’s $100 million down payment on the planned 100-turbine Merricourt wind farm, where protecting two endangered birds is causing delay and extra expense, Xcel said Thursday during its first-quarter earnings announcement.
Xcel said it will look for other wind projects in North Dakota. It may even partner with EnXco, the American subsidiary of EDF Energies Nouvelles, at another location. Xcel has told North Dakota it wants to develop 200 megawatts of wind power there.
“EnXco has expressed interest in exploring alternative resolutions to our termination of the Merricourt contract,” Judy Poferl, president of Xcel’s Minnesota operations, said in a letter to regulators.
EnXco declined to answer questions, but issued a statement Thursday that it was committed to the Merricourt projec. It’s unclear who would own the wind farm, which was to begin construction this year.
The dispute erupted over the endangered whooping crane, which migrates through the state, and the piping plover, a threatened species on the northern plains. Federal wildlife officials fear plovers could be slashed by turbine blades and whooping cranes scared off their nests. Both birds are protected under federal laws.
EnXco, which was to build the wind farm for Xcel, initially had objected to the Minneapolis-based utility’s decision last month to terminate the $400 million project in southeastern North Dakota. Xcel said the 150-megawatt project faced unacceptable delay and extra cost.
More recently, EnXco has told regulators it has agreed to suggestions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a bird habitat plan and obtain a permit to avoid federal penalties if an endangered bird accidentally is killed. At least temporarily, the Merricourt project would join a handful of U.S. wind farms with agreements to shut off turbines to protect birds that are migrating or spotted nearby.
Xcel reported $204 million in earnings for the quarter, or 42 cents per share, in line with what stock analysts expected. The Minneapolis-based utility said it benefited from interim electric rate increases in Minnesota and North Dakota and cooler temperatures during the heating season. The utility reported higher operating, maintenance and other expenses that partly offset the higher electric and natural gas margins.
Xcel reiterated its earnings target of $1.65 to $1.75 per share for the year. Analysts have expected Xcel to hit the higher end of that range. Shares closed Thursday at $24.31, up 7 cents.
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