March 20, 2015
North Dakota

Wind farm plans change; PSC conducts hearing on Merricourt Wind Farm project

By Keith Norman | The Jamestown Tun | March 20, 2015 |

ASHLEY, N.D. – Changes to the plans for the Merricourt Wind Farm prompted a hearing by the North Dakota Public Service Commission Thursday. The hearing also included information that incidental take permits were being sought for up to four piping plovers and one whooping crane over the 30-year life of the project.

The proposed 75-turbine wind farm is located predominantly in eastern McIntosh County with a smaller section in western Dickey County. It is named for a small Dickey County community. Christopher Sternhagen, senior developer for EDF Renewable Energy, the project developer, said the company is still planning a 150-megawatt wind farm but will now use 75 turbines rated at 2 megawatts rather than 100 turbines rated at 1.5 megawatts.

Whooping crane are endangered while the piping plover is considered a threatened species. The incidental take permits would be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service and exempt the wind farm operators from criminal prosecution if endangered or threatened species were killed by the turbines.

Jennifer Turnbow, director of environmental services for engineering firm KLJ, which is performing environmental consulting work on the project, said she had worked on environmental concerns on the wind project since 2008. She said 202 locations of significance to Native American tribes had been identified and were avoided by the project.

She also said a final review and approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Dakota State Historical Society were pending.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing an environmental assessment leading to a possible finding of no significant impact and the issuance of an incidental take permit,” she said.

The State Historical Society had been furnished with information indicating the nearest turbine would be 6.5 miles from Whitestone Battlefield State Historic Site although the wind farm would be visible from the historic site above the skyline to the southwest. It had not replied to EDF Renewable Energy about the information.

The Public Service Commission held a hearing in Ashley on the original project in May 2011. The PSC had approved the project although it was not built when Xcel Energy canceled its contract to purchase power generated by the Merricourt Wind Farm. EDF lost the case challenging Xcel’s right to cancel the contract in 2013.

Sternhagen said the larger turbines would make the project more efficient. The turbines have a height of 426 feet when the blade is in the top position. This means the outer turbines of the wind farm will have safety lights to alert low-flying aircraft.

Even with fewer turbines, the project drew criticism from some residents.

“I don’t want to become the dead skunk in the middle of the road where I raise a stink but keeping getting run over,” said Gary Grosz, local resident who is not participating in the project. “There are a lot of absentee landowners within the project. I’m one of the few that lives there.”

Grosz said disruptions to his farm operation would occur during the construction phase and there would be changes to his quality of life if some of the wind turbine sites listed as alternates were constructed near his home.

Alternate sites would be used if any of the primary sites were deemed unbuildable because of archeological items discovered during foundation construction.

“The alternate tower sites, if approved today, could be built with a stroke of a pen,” he said.

EDF did remove from consideration two alternate sites located close to Grosz’s property.

Grosz said his goal was to protest those items within the wind farm that caused him the most concern, although he opposed the entire project.

“When I look at a wind farm I see it as a power plant spread over a large area,” he said. “It becomes a sterile area.”

John Moa, another area resident, also said wind farm project areas become sterile of wildlife. He said he was a lifelong hunter who valued what he called the last frontier as a resource.

“I hope it doesn’t happen,” he said, speaking of the project. “If it does, get your checkbook out. I’m moving out.”

Brian Kalk, public service commissioner, said the commission would review the testimony and exhibits of the 2011 hearing along with the new information.

Sternhagen said construction would not start on the project until a purchaser was found for the electricity produced by the wind farm. If a buyer can be arranged, construction could start in the spring of 2016 with completion by the fall.

The wind farm’s costs are estimated at $400 million. When operational, it will employ 10 to 12 people.

[rest of article available at source]

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