Stark County wind farm hearing was longest in state history; PSC deliberations could last until early May
Credit: By Kalsey Stults on Mar 31, 2016 | The Dickinson Press | www.thedickinsonpress.com ~~
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The Brady Wind Energy Center hearing made North Dakota history on Wednesday.
The Public Service Commission heard 15 hours of testimony and public comment on the proposed 87-turbine wind farm proposed for southern Stark County – the longest wind project hearing it has had since wind development started over a decade ago, Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk said Thursday.
The hearing’s length is in part, Kalk said, because North Dakotans have started to question wind development.
“Every energy source has pros and cons,” he said. “I think what is happening now is people really understand the negative sides of wind development where before everybody was ‘wind is great.’ Well now, wind is still great, but there are concerns you have to work through.”
The hearing for a transmission line for the project began at 9:30 p.m. and lasted less than an hour following a full day of evidentiary evidence, witnesses and public testimony presented by Brady Wind LLC, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, and grassroots opposition group the Concerned Citizens of Stark County.
Though Kalk, along with the Commission Chair Julie Fedorchak and Commissioner Randy Christmann, patiently let every single person that wanted to speak tell their opinion, Kalk said the day became a bit repetitive.
“There were a lot of witnesses,” he said. “But a lot of the information and concerns were kind of the same. I would view it for me, that there was really nothing that came out of the hearing that I really didn’t expect – just a lot of it.”
That patience is something Tom Reichert, spokesman for the Concerned Citizens of Stark County, said he was impressed by.
“They did everything they possibly could to make sure everybody from both sides had an opportunity to voice their opinion and present their views,” he said. “They were very patient and they seemed very interested in what everyone had to say. They stayed there until absolutely everybody that wanted to speak had a chance, and that was very impressive.”
The CCSC called six witnesses to present its case with the guidance of Minneapolis-based attorney Matt Collins. NextEra presented its evidence and called upon three environmental expert witnesses, along with Jason Utton, the company’s executive director of business development.
Bryan Garner, NextEra’s manager of communications, said the Florida-based energy company feels pleased with how Wednesday went.
“We were pleased by the diligence and detail with which the commissioners reviewed the Brady Wind project,” he said, “and the passion that landowners expressed in support of it.”
During the hearing, one of the CCSC witnesses expressed concern about the proximity of turbines near her home. When Kalk presented the opportunity for Autumn Richard to request three of the closest wind turbines be moved to an alternate location, NextEra voluntarily decided to move them.
“I would say that was the most significant thing that came out of the hearing,” Kalk said. “You know the company doesn’t have to do anything. I thought that was a very nice gesture on the part of the company to do that.”
However, though that decision might have eased some of Richard’s concerns, it may cause concern for another landowner.
“There’s a flip side to that now, of course,” Kalk said. “There is going to be a landowner somewhere that was expecting those three turbines to be on their property and now they will be on someone else’s property.”
Waiting on late-file exhibits
The Public Service Commission will hold its first work session in late April to review all of the information commissioners were presented. By that time, Kalk said, the PSC should receive the 10 late-file exhibits that were requested Wednesday.
One of those exhibits will be an updated map Kalk requested from NextEra with a smaller project footprint.
“I think that is significant, too, that they agreed during the hearing to shrink the project area,” he said.
Another of those late files will be a statement from Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which has a purchase power agreement with NextEra for the 150-megawatt wind farm, stating that they reached out to NextEra to fill an energy need.
Curt Pearson, spokesman for Basin Electric Power Cooperative, said there is a strong need for electric generation in the Bakken Oil Patch and Basin Electric approached NextEra to ease that need.
“Everyone is hearing about the downturn in the Bakken,” Pearson said. “Basin Electric re-evaluates our load forecast regularly and while our load forecasts have gone down, they still show an increase in power demand. We still have increasing needs for electric generation in the Bakken. However, it is increasing at a slower rate than it was before.”
The energy that would be generated from the first phase of Brady Wind, as well as a potential second phase in northern Hettinger County, would go into a collective pool of generation resources and be sent to wherever it is needed in that moment.
“Will some of that end up in the North Dakota, the Bakken? Undoubtedly,” Pearson said. “Will some of it go to serve the loads of Roughrider Electric customers? Undoubtedly.”
Pearson said Basin Electric contracted with NextEra because it was an affordable and needed option.
Reichert said because of the ongoing push for wind energy, his group will stay active to be “vigilant and proactive.”
“I’m very grateful that we had the opportunity to communicate our views,” he said.
Kalk said he was also happy to see there was respect and professionalism throughout the day.
“I thought the decorum of all sides was very good,” he said. “Nobody made it personal. They went up and said what their concerns were. Nobody was screaming back and forth at each other. We’ve had hearings that have gotten pretty heated over the years, but I was just impressed with the professionalism of all of the people there. That was really nice to see.”
Kalk said the commissioners could come to a decision by late May.
Reichert said he can’t predict what that decision will be, but said he felt it was a good process.
“It’s hard to tell what their final decision will be, but it was a very good process and very educational,” he said. “I think everybody that attended whether they were for it or against it learned a lot.”
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