A company that for years has been planning a wind turbine farm in an area of southeastern North Dakota where endangered birds nest and fly over is proposing changes that might help reduce potential harm.
The proposed move to fewer and larger turbines is the latest development in a project that state Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk says “has a storied past.”
EDF Renewable Energy received a state site permit in June 2011 for a project consisting of up to 100 1.5-megawatt turbines. The company, which was called enXco Development Corp. at the time the $400 million Merricourt Wind Power Project was announced, is now proposing 75 2-megawatt turbines.
The proposed revision would reduce the project area by half, to 17 square miles in McIntosh and Dickey counties.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be studying the proposed changes as part of an ongoing assessment of the project’s impact on the environment and on two endangered species of birds, said Kevin Shelley, state supervisor for the federal agency’s Division of Ecological Services.
The proposed wind farm area is on the edge of the whooping crane migration corridor. Piping plover might be at even higher risk because of the amount of habitat in the area suited to the birds, Shelley said.
In 2013, the project caught the eye of the American Bird Conservancy, which along with other groups called for a tougher environmental review. That won’t happen unless the initial study determines it’s warranted, Shelley said.
EDF Renewable Energy wants to use the newer, larger turbines “to make use of the best available technology,” but the company also hopes it will address the bird issue, said Chris Sternhagen, development manager in Minneapolis.
“We ultimately believe it should be lower risk because there are a smaller number of turbines,” Sternhagen said. “Until we run models and do analysis, we can’t say one way or another.”
The uncertainty of the wind farm’s impact on whoopers and plovers is one of the reasons the project is taking so long to materialize.
EnXco had planned to work on the wind farm with Xcel Energy, but the Minnesota-based utility dropped out of the project in April 2011 in part over fears that it would harm endangered birds. EnXco unsuccessfully sued for breach of contract and is still seeking a buyer for the power that would be produced by the wind farm.
“We’re not going to make the investment in the construction cost until we have secured (a buyer) for the power,” Sternhagen said.
In the meantime, the company is working with Fish and Wildlife on developing a habitat conservation plan to address the bird issue as it pursues an optional federal permit that would shield it from potential fines should an endangered bird be killed.
If Fish and Wildlife does not grant the permit, it will not doom the project. However, “they’ve got a big decision to make if that’s the outcome,” Shelley said.
The state PSC, which needs to approve the change in turbines, is holding a public hearing in Ashley on Thursday. Kalk said the group welcomes the input of federal wildlife officials but that it won’t be the overriding factor in the commission’s decision.
Whether EDF eventually gets the optional federal permit would be more of factor if the company reaches a deal to sell power from the wind farm to a utility the PSC regulates, Kalk said.
“I would want to make sure ratepayers aren’t at risk if something goes wrong,” he said.
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