A bill focused on the reliability of the power grid is headed to Gov. Doug Burgum’s desk after it cleared its second legislative chamber Wednesday.
Senate Bill 2313 took on several iterations over the past few months and is one of a handful of bills in which the tension over challenges facing the coal industry has come to a head at the state Capitol.
The final version would affect several arms of state government and utility companies if Burgum signs it into law. It would require that the North Dakota Transmission Authority, part of the state Industrial Commission, participate in transmission-related studies and prepare an annual report about the resilience of the electric grid.
It also spells out how the Public Service Commission would evaluate integrated resource plans, a document prepared each year by companies such as Montana-Dakota Utilities stating their long-term plans. The PSC wants to take a more active role in giving utilities feedback and is looking to hire a consultant to facilitate the work, a process outlined in a different measure also awaiting Burgum’s signature, House Bill 1067.
Several sticking points emerged in the debate over the grid reliability bill. For one, the PSC would have the authority to assign a value to “baseload” electricity from sources such as coal as they scrutinize companies’ plans. Baseload generally refers to coal, gas or nuclear power that can operate 24/7, in contrast with “intermittent” power such as from wind farms that can operate only when it’s windy.
North Dakota’s utility sector opposed that part of the bill and still has concerns about it.
“We feel that artificially changes the costs that will ultimately be borne by customers, but it is in the planning stage and at this point we’re willing to wait and see how the commission approaches it,” said Carlee McLeod, president of the Utility Shareholders of North Dakota. “It will be interesting to see how the consultants place a value on that and ultimately what it will mean to the planning of resources down the line.”
The PSC described the bill as a way to give the commission more tools to ensure the reliability of the power grid as the energy landscape changes, with an influx of natural gas and renewable power competing with coal. The legislation would help the commission prevent the loss of benefits that sources such as coal provide to the grid, PSC Chair Julie Fedorchak testified to a legislative committee earlier this year.
The bill also would allow the PSC to fine utilities for failing to provide reliable service or for not meeting certain parameters required by regional grid operators. McLeod called that part of the legislation “fair” after some tweaks were made to it in the House.
The Senate concurred with the House’s changes Wednesday by a vote of 43-4. The House passed the bill unanimously last week.
“It’s a bill that gets us on the pathway of ensuring reliable baseload energy and ensuring that when we turn the lights on, they go on,” said Sen. Donald Schaible, R-Mott.
As the bill made its way through the legislative process earlier this year, thousands of rural electric cooperative members in North Dakota lost power in rolling blackouts as bitterly cold weather hit the southern United States and stressed power grids, some of which extend up into the state. The event heightened debate within the Legislature and the PSC about the need to address grid reliability.
The bill was first proposed by legislative leaders. Lawmakers nixed its original language entirely earlier this year in favor of directing the transmission authority to study the reliability of the power grid. The first iteration of the bill would have required that operators of wind or solar farms secure a certain amount of electricity from sources such as coal or natural gas to back up their facilities’ power output.
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