The Public Service Commission’s hearing on a new area wind farm Thursday wound up being for the birds.
The hearing’s discussion on a site permit for the Merricourt Wind Farm centered mostly on whooping cranes and piping plovers. The hearing was held in Ashley although a ruling by the PSC is likely weeks away.
The planned wind farm would be in western Dickey and eastern McIntosh counties just west of the small town of Merricourt.
“There is some concern with wildlife,” said Steve Peluso, vice president of origination for EnXco, the company developing the wind farm. “We’re making good progress with the United States Fish and Wildlife agency. I don’t see any reason this won’t be resolved.”
During testimony, Chris Sternhagen, EnXco regional development manager, said the Fish and Wildlife Department had found the project unlikely to threaten whooping cranes. He also said the project was placing wind turbines no closer than one mile to habitat of the endangered piping plover and was pursuing a “take authorization.”
Take authorizations allow the inadvertent killing of an endangered species during a legal activity.
“We are told they routinely grant the take authorizations for plover,” Sternhagen said.
He also said the project had a high level of environmental safeguards.
“This project includes more conservation programs than most if not all of the other wind farms in North Dakota,” he said.
Birds were also the main topic of the testimony by local citizens.
“I’m not against wind towers,” said John Moe, a farmer from the Fredonia area. “I’m against where they plan to put the towers. From the Whitestone Hill to Wishek it’s all water. Birds migrate through those areas. I don’t know how many will fly into the wind towers but I’m sure it’s a lot.”
Donald Schnering, mayor of Lehr, disputed the comments.
“There is not one documented endangered species killed in North Dakota by wind farms,” Schnering said. “Coal is not the best way to make electricity but Fish and Wildlife is making such a stink – if a plover is spotted you’d have to shut down the wind farm. Seems like they’re trying to choke the life out of wind power.”
Schnering also praised the benefits of wind energy to local small town economies.
“For the small towns this is a lot of house rentals during construction and help for the bars, restaurants and stores,” he said. “Plus permanent jobs after it is built and more money in the community.”
Others saw another benefit.
“I’m all for it but its going to be a tough go,” said Gerald Goettle, farmer and truck driver from Ashley. “I’m looking forward to the project for the road work that will have to be done. The roads are terrible now. They’ll have to make repairs to haul that equipment.”
He said many roads in the area of the project are underwater or saturated to the point they are too soft for truck traffic.
Tony Clark, PSC president, said a working meeting of the commissioners would be held to review the project in a couple of weeks. Commissioner Brian Kalk was present but would review the transcript and audio recording of the hearing and be part of the decision.
“It’s an ideal location,” Peluso said. “Well situated with wind resources, transmission lines and good landowner support. Construction could start this summer if all goes well.”
The operational plan of the Merricourt Wind Farm has changed but discussion of that action was not part of the site hearing.
EnXco had an agreement with Xcel Energy to operate the wind farm. Xcel announced they were withdrawing from the project in April. EnXco said the case is headed for the courts.
“We’re still the developer of the project,” Peluso said. “We still have a viable agreement (with Xcel) although that is in dispute.”
The project is planned to include 100 turbines each capable of generating 1.5 megawatts of power. It will create between 200 and 300 temporary jobs during construction and about 10 maintenance jobs during operations.