After the Public Service Commission rejected a proposed wind farm last year over concerns about its impact on wildlife, the regulators are considering a revamped version of the project slated for Burke County.
The PSC heard from developer NextEra Energy Resources about its redesign in an all-day hearing Friday, as well as from a union seeking to ensure that more wind-related construction jobs go to North Dakota workers.
NextEra is planning the 200-megawatt Northern Divide wind farm with 74 turbines in the northwestern part of the state, as well as a new transmission line to connect the project to the power grid. Basin Electric Power Cooperative has entered into a 30-year agreement with the company to purchase power from the site.
A NextEra environmental representative said the company has incorporated recommendations from state and federal wildlife authorities to lessen the project’s environmental impact by moving turbines “into areas less suitable” for wildlife.
Environmental services project manager Dustin Jones acknowledged that all development projects have the potential to impact birds.
“We don’t feel the risk for this project is any different from others,” he said.
NextEra has reduced the project area to cover 11,000 acres of land, about half the size of its earlier Burke Wind project that the PSC rejected, Jones said. The company has relocated 44 turbines, including those it says North Dakota Game and Fish found most problematic.
All turbines now would be located in cropland and outside of areas with a high density of pintail ducks. Twenty of the turbines would fall outside the Northern Missouri Coteau region, part of birds’ migration corridor and a landscape rich in native grasslands and wetland.
The mitigation efforts have “considerably reduced” potential impacts to “important wildlife resources,” said Greg Link, chief of Game and Fish’s Conservation and Communications Division, in a letter to the PSC.
“Although greatly improved, not all the project’s potential impacts could be avoided,” Link continued, adding that the majority of the project area is still within the Northern Missouri Coteau where there is “a higher degree of displacement risk associated with the development in this landscape area, as compared to other areas within the state” because migratory birds like to stop there.
NextEra said it will offset some of the impact by restoring 100 acres of native grassland and 196 acres of wetland elsewhere in the Missouri Coteau. It’s also committed to keeping future projects outside the Northern Missouri Coteau region.
“We appreciate Northern Divide Wind’s efforts to address the Department’s concerns,” Link wrote. “These efforts demonstrate their commitment to pursue wind development in a more responsible manner, on this project and in the future.”
Commissioner Julie Fedorchak called Link’s comments “a stark contrast” to the concerns Game and Fish raised in the Burke Wind project.
“I think it does recognize the significant changes that you guys have made to this project,” she told Jones.
The Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota is continuing to raise an issue that it has pursued before with the PSC: hiring local workers to build wind farms.
The union intervened in the proceedings, just as it did with the Ruso Wind project, another wind farm that the commission rejected earlier this year over issues surrounding the lights that top wind turbines.
The union is suggesting that the PSC again consider requiring wind developers to disclose the number of local and nonlocal workers. Minnesota regulators now require that companies take such a step, after the union pursued the matter in the state.
The North Dakota commission previously did not act on the request, suggesting the union pursue the issue with other state agencies such as Job Service North Dakota.
Steve Cortina, a union marketing representative, said he has since visited with Job Service and hopes to meet with state officials from other state agencies in the future.
He said the union has successfully filled the majority of wind construction jobs at several other North Dakota projects with local workers. But some projects, including NextEra’s Emmons Logan wind farm, hired only about 7% North Dakota workers and brought in the rest from other states, according to the union’s estimate.
Now, “a lot of construction is postponed to later dates” because of the coronavirus pandemic, Cortina said, adding North Dakota union members are looking for work.
Sean Harrington, director of construction for NextEra, said that while he could not commit to hiring a certain percentage of local workers for the Northern Divide project, the head contractors on its projects hold jobs fairs “to hire as much qualified local labor that’s in the area.”
“Our goal is to hire as much as we can within a daily commute, and then we look regionally and then to the state of North Dakota, and eventually outside,” he said.
He said NextEra has encountered some challenges to hiring local workers for projects in North Dakota, particularly because of construction needs in the oil and gas industry and the fact that wind projects are in remote areas. He said the company has had better luck in Minnesota.
Cortina, who has worked in wind farm construction in North Dakota and in other states, disputed that those factors are problematic for hiring local workers. He said the rural nature of the projects “pretty much describes any wind project I’ve ever worked on and pipeline projects around the state.”
The union estimates that if only a minority of workers for the Northern Divide project are local, the surrounding area could lose out on $5.4 million in payroll and economic activity compared to if it uses more than 50% local workers.
The PSC is expected to vote on a permit for the Northern Divide wind farm at a future meeting.
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