ELLENDALE – Officials with NextEra Energy told the North Dakota Public Service Commission at a public hearing here Monday that the Foxtail Wind Energy Center is designed to avoid direct impact on areas of archeological, tribal and historical significance.
The Foxtail Wind Energy Center is a wind farm made up of about 20,000 acres in western Dickey County located south of Merricourt and north of Forbes. The project will use 75 turbines capable of generating 150 megawatts of electricity.
The project is a wholly-owned subsidiary of NextEra Energy. Foxtail Wind has done the planning and development of the project and is seeking site authorization from the PSC.
If the project is authorized, the project will be sold to Xcel Energy by Jan. 31, 2018. Xcel plans to begin construction of the project in May 2018 with completion anticipated by September 2019. The project has an engineer’s cost estimate of $276 million, according to Mark Nisbet, North Dakota principal manager for Xcel Energy.
“It’s obvious the commission does a thorough job of taking the interests of the public into account,” Nisbit said.
The current Foxtail Wind plan includes much of the same area that had been part of the Roughrider Wind Farm planned by NextEra in 2009. That project was authorized by the PSC in 2010 but never built.
The Foxtail Wind application includes a new environmental assessment rather than an update to the Roughrider Wind Farm.
Kimberly Wells, the environmental permitting manager for NextEra Energy, said Monday the plans had been designed to avoid any direct impact on many areas including high quality native prairie grasslands.
Commissioner Julie Fedorchak questioned who had established the definition of what constituted high quality native prairie and said 53 of the 75 turbines planned for the project are located on native prairie.
Native prairie was defined as land that had never been plowed and contained native species of plants, Wells said. She said her company had defined high quality native prairie contained a larger variety of grasses and an absence of invasive plant species and woody plants. High-quality native prairie is a better habitat for grassland wildlife and insects.
Fedorchak requested NextEra file more information regarding the native prairie in question as part of a response to questions raised by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in letters they had filed with the PSC. Those letters had asked for further information on NextEra’s plans concerning habitat and wildlife.
Along with an assessment of the project’s impact on native prairie, NextEra said it consulted with 16 tribes concerning sites of Native American significance.
A survey found 126 sites the Native American surveyors considered significant. In addition, the State Historical Society of North Dakota had requested no turbines be placed within 2 miles of Whitestone Hill Battlefield.
Whitestone Hill Battlefield is the location of an 1863 battle between Native Americans and the U.S. Army. It is considered a Civil War battlefield and is marked with monuments and a small museum.
Photographic modeling showed turbines at that distance would be visible on the horizon from Whitestone Hill during the summer.
The survey also included information on up to nine active grouse lek, grouse mating grounds, and more than 20 raptor nests including one used by a bald eagle.
“I’ve never seen this many eagles listed in the area of a wind project,” Fedorchak said. “There is a lot more wildlife activity in this area than the other wind farm areas we’ve dealt with.”
The PSC will review additional information requested from NextEra and make a decision at a later date.
If constructed, the project will pay about $25 million in lease payments to area farmers and $22 million in local property taxes over the next 30 years. Construction of the project will employ about 150 people with an estimated six to nine people permanently employed at the wind farm.
“This should be good for the county with the tax revenue and lease payments,” said Frank Kaiser, local landowner. “It really is a win-win situation for us here.”