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State delves into new issue of wind farm site decommissioning; sets big precedent

An issue more than 10 years in the making surfaced this month for the state, energy companies and landowners—an issue that North Dakota had never previously encountered.

The complexity of wind energy sites, and their decommissioning, is seldom heard above the boisterous talk about oil and the Bakken. For many, it’s just as important, if not more.

This month, the North Dakota Public Service Commission (PSC) realized this intricate issue when it began its very first process of reviewing decommission plans for wind farms that have reached the 10-year mark of their lifespan.

Cedar Hills, located five miles west of Rhame in Bowman County, is a wind farm of 13 turbines established to collect energy through wind power. The turbines are owned and operated by Montana-Dakota Utilities Co., a division of MDU Resources Group.

That site, which went operational in June 2010, still has several years before it will be decommissioned, but MDU had earlier established a plan for its decommission.

A major concern of those opposing wind energy is their belief that landowners would have to pay to either remove the structures, which can involve millions of dollars, or to maintain them, even after their lifespan is complete and are no longer operational.

Many people also consider a decommissioned turbine site to be an eyesore and negatively affect the landowner’s property.

The PSC, however, requires the companies whose turbines are on the property owner’s land to issue a guaranty that they would finance the decommission and land restoration process, following guidelines established by the PSC and North Dakota Century Code.

“It’s important that we develop all types of energy,” PSC Chairman Brian Kalk said in a statement. “It’s equally important that when the energy generation assets reach the end of their useful life, we ensure the land is reclaimed.”

Century Code allows the PSC to decide whether the company owning a wind energy project operating for more than 10 years would be required to file financial assurance to cover the cost of decommissioning and restoration.

Essentially, it’s under the discretion of the PSC if those companies would pay to reclaim their property and restore the land or leave it up to landowners.

That issue arose this year as four projects hit the 10-year mark and triggered a review of their respective decommissioning plans.

“These wind farms cover thousands of acres and leave a large footprint, so it’s important to get this right,” PSC Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said.

Fedorchak added that the commission reviewed the issue thoroughly and reached a good balance that protected the public and the landscape.

The commission opened an investigation last September to determine the sufficiency of decommissioning plans for wind energy projects located in Edgley, south of Jamestown, which are owned by FPL Energy.

During that investigation, it was reported that FPL Energy estimated a 35-year project life for its turbines, after which the total cost of decommissioning and restoration of the sites was expected to reach about $3.39 million.

The commission approved an order Sept. 2 that would require FPL Energy to obtain a corporate guaranty in the full estimated amounts for each project.

“By setting a new precedent requiring financial assurances on these wind farms, we are again doing our best to make sure that the land will be as good or better for future generations,” PSC Commissioner Randy Christmann said.

“If a company is maybe facing financial difficulty … what they do is ask for some sort of financial assurance that will cover the cost of decommissioning and recovery,” explained Mark Hanson, senior public relations representative for MDU.

A report submitted by MDU Resources to the PSC in July 2010 detailed the extensive process for its planned reclamation of the Bowman County wind energy site. That site is located on privately owned agricultural land.

According to the report, the wind turbines are expected to have a useful life of 20 years, meaning they would be set for decommissioning around the year 2030.

The site’s decommission is to include the removal of all turbine components and associated transformers from the site, removal of the collector circuit components from the site to a depth of four feet below grade and removal of all wind project related substation components from the site.

Any components or structures extending beyond four feet below the ground would remain after decommission, according to the report.

Grading and seeding will occur where subsurface infrastructure is removed.

MDU said the entire decommission project would cost $960,700, based on a cost estimate obtained in 2010. Those prices could change once the site enters the decommissioning process in less than two decades.

Components and material removed from the site will be transported to appropriate facilities for reconditioning, salvage, recycling or disposal.