While the North Dakota Public Service Commission approved the site permit for the Merricourt Wind Farm last week, don’t look for construction yet this summer, according to Sandi Briner, media contact for the project developer, enXco.
The 100-turbine, 150-megawatt wind farm is planned for western Dickey and eastern McIntosh counties near the town of Merricourt. The Public Service Commission conducted hearings on the project in Ellendale and Ashley in May.
Briner said the project would proceed after a legal dispute with Xcel Energy concerning the purchase of power from the wind farm is resolved.
In PSC filings in 2008, enXco and Xcel were both part of the planned Merricourt Wind Farm. EnXco would develop and construct the wind farm while Xcel would purchase the resulting electricity. In April 2011, Xcel announced it was terminating the contract over unresolved issues.
“These include concerns expressed by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service regarding the project’s potential impact on protected wildlife and the uncertainty, cost and timing of mitigating this impact,” wrote Patti Nystuen, senior media relations representative for Xcel, in email comments.
Nystuen declined to be interviewed on the subject citing the ongoing litigation.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife officials are working with enXco officials to address wildlife issues.
“We have concerns over the impact to whooping cranes and piping plover as well as impact to all migratory birds,” said Jeff Towner, field supervisor for the Fish & Wildlife Service in Bismarck. “We’ve been in communications with enXco since June or July of 2009.”
Whooping cranes and piping plovers are classified as endangered species and covered by the Endangered Species Act.
Towner said enXco is in the process of developing a habitat conservation plan. The plan is prepared and funded by the project developer but must be approved by the Fish & Wildlife staff. The plan is not complete at this time.
“enXco has also received acknowledgment from the U.S. Fish & Wildife Service regarding the company’s development of an Avian and Bat Protection Plan and commitment of $1.3 million to support habitat conservation for the whooping crane and piping plover,” Briner said in a press release.
Towner said it typically takes several drafts or revisions of the Habitat Conservation Plan before finalization. Once a plan is agreed to it insulates the wind farm developer and operator from some potential liability.
“They prepare a plan that we review and if we agree we could issue an incidental take permit,” Towner said. “The incidental take permit acknowledges they have taken steps to avoid incidental killing of endangered species and releases them from liability if it occurs.”
Criminal and civil penalties exist for knowingly killing an endangered species. Criminal cases could result in up to one year in prison and fines of up to $50,000 with civil penalties of up to $25,000.
“Each company has its own reasons for doing a Habitat Conservation Plan,” Towner said. “But one factor would be the limitation of liability if an endangered species is taken.”
Towner said it is unlikely a Habitat Conservation Plan could be completed and approved during the 2011 summer construction season. Both Briner and Nystuen wouldn’t speculate on any timeline for the litigation between enXco and Xcel.
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