State regulators rejected a permit Wednesday for a proposed wind farm in Ward and McLean counties that faced difficulties complying with a 2017 state law requiring new technology to stop turbine-topping lights from blinking bright red all night.
The Public Service Commission, in a 1-2 vote, failed to approve Southern Power’s Ruso Wind project, though commissioners left open the option of reconsidering it down the road. The company did not immediately respond to a Tribune request for comment.
Wednesday’s vote marks the second time the commission has rejected a wind farm, at least in recent history. The PSC denied a permit last year for the proposed Burke County Wind project over environmental concerns, although NextEra Energy has since proposed a modified version of the wind farm.
The Minot Air Force Base raised concerns last year about the radar-based light-mitigating technology that Southern Power intended to use for Ruso Wind. The system would have turned off the lights at night except for when aircraft pass in the vicinity of the turbines.
The Air Force flies hundreds of helicopter missions each year to intercontinental ballistic missile sites, some of which are located near the proposed turbines. Among the military’s concerns was a scenario in which blinking lights could tip off an enemy to a helicopter’s location.
Commissioner Randy Christman said he felt the 2017 law requiring technology to mitigate the lights left no wiggle room for exceptions.
“Where my concern lies is on the wording of the law,” he said.
Supporters of the law sought a better experience for residents near wind farms by addressing the lights. Some people complain that the red flashes ruin the dark sky.
So far, the Federal Aviation Administration has authorized only the radar-based light-mitigating system. An alternative technology under development would dim the lights based on visibility conditions, but wind farms cannot yet use it because it has not received federal approval.
Christmann, along with Commission Chairman Brian Kroshus, voted against Ruso Wind on Wednesday. Both agreed that Southern Power could modify its plans for the farm and put forward the proposal again at a later date.
Kroshus said he would encourage the Legislature to revisit the light-mitigating law next year to address the issues surrounding the Ruso project.
“I don’t want to get ahead of legislative action in terms of changing statute, and in my opinion I think we clearly would,” he said of the proposed permit before the PSC.
The permit included a condition, suggested by Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, that would have let the company hold off on installing light-mitigating technology until the FAA authorized an alternative to the radar-based system. The project developer would have had to provide monthly updates on its effort to obtain an approved lighting plan and, as soon as one was authorized, install it.
Fedorchak, the lone vote in favor of approving a permit for the project, said she wants to see the technology “used as soon as possible on all possible wind facilities in our state.”
“In the case of this project, I think that was the company’s plan all along, and late in the game, it became evident from the Air Force’s concerns that existing light-mitigating technology that’s available today doesn’t work well in addressing the concerns the Air Force has raised,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that future technology won’t be available for this project.”
Ruso Wind also faces other hurdles, such as receiving approval from a regional grid operator to connect the facility to the electric grid. One operator told the developer that connecting the proposed wind farm would require $500 million in upgrades to the transmission system.
Fedorchak said she expected it would take time for the wind farm to actually come to fruition even if it were to receive PSC approval Wednesday. In the meantime, alternative light-mitigating technology might become available. She added that the PSC offered to hold a public hearing on the lighting matter, but it did not receive any requests for one.
The commission has opted to not move forward with another issue pertaining to Ruso Wind. The Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota wanted the PSC to require that the developer report back the number of local and nonlocal workers involved in construction of the wind farm.
The union has raised concerns about the lack of local workforce involved in constructing wind farms in North Dakota. It says out-of-state workers tend to come into the state, temporarily, to fill those jobs.
When it became clear that the PSC was not likely to act on that request following a meeting last fall, the union opted to take a different approach at the suggestion of commissioners, said Pamela Trhlik, director of governmental relations and new business development for the union. It’s since met with Job Service North Dakota to discuss the matter and is planning to approach lawmakers about addressing the issue during the next legislative session.
“We will not drop local hire,” Trhlik said.
Also on Wednesday, the commission approved settlements with NextEra Energy regarding several wind farms that failed to meet the Dec. 31, 2019, deadline for installing light-mitigating systems. The company will pay $2,000 for the Brady I and II wind facilities in Stark and Hettinger counties and $1,500 for the Oliver III wind farm in Oliver County. Those wind farms missed the deadline by several days and are now in compliance.
Wind farms permitted prior to June 2016 must comply by the end of 2021.
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