A wind farm slated for southwestern North Dakota would bump up against sage grouse country, prompting concern from state wildlife officials.
That’s among the issues expected to come up at a hearing Tuesday before the state Public Service Commission, which must decide whether to issue a siting permit for the project. Regulators also will hear from a labor union that wants the project developer to hire local workers to build the wind farm.
The sage grouse issue is unique to energy development in the southwestern corner of the state, as that’s the only part of North Dakota where the bird lives. Its population has declined in recent decades, and conservation efforts in the western United States seek to maintain the species’ habitat to keep the bird from being listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Fewer than 30 male sage grouse exist in North Dakota, according to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. The agency recommends that regulators stop permitting energy projects within certain conservation areas and within a 4-mile radius of where the birds mate.
The department says eight of the 74 turbines proposed in Apex Clean Energy’s Bowman Wind project fall within those sites, and they want the developer to relocate the towers before they go up. Game and Fish spelled out its concerns to the PSC in a July letter.
Further energy development there could reduce the chance of the sage grouse population making a full recovery, and the loss of the bird from part of its range could prompt federal wildlife officials to list the species under the Endangered Species Act, the department said. Listing the species would trigger limits on energy development, among other activities within the bird’s range.
The agency added that even without wind development in the area “it may already be impossible to reverse the declining population trend.” But it is seeking to protect the birds in part “because they are a charismatic native species in North Dakota.”
Sage grouse aren’t hunted in North Dakota because of their low numbers, but they’re known for an elaborate courtship ritual in which males “dance” – strut around, puff out their chest and fan their tails – to attract females to mating grounds known as leks.
“The department believes it would be irresponsible to abandon efforts to protect what little remaining sage grouse habitat we have in North Dakota,” Conservation and Communications Division Chief Greg Link wrote in the letter.
Apex responded earlier this month, saying the sage grouse conservation plan the state relies on is voluntary. That’s true, according to Game and Fish staff. Protections do exist but they apply to federal land, of which there is relatively little in North Dakota.
Game and Fish’s recommendations “do not supersede the individual rights of private landowners to maintain and develop their land as they see fit, including generating a secondary source of income,” wrote Apex Vice President of Environmental Affairs Ryan Henning in a letter to the PSC.
“This is particularly true with respect to the privately owned lands on which the project proposes to site turbines – lands that are currently in agricultural production, already interspersed with oil and gas development, and not likely to be used by greater sage grouse,” he said.
Oil production has long occurred in southwestern North Dakota, though much of the drilling taking place today tends to be focused farther north in the core region of the Bakken oil patch by Watford City.
Apex says 89 active oil wells are located within 4 miles of one of the mating sites identified by Game and Fish and that the turbines would be located in farmland, calling into question whether the area meets the criteria for the state’s sage grouse conservation recommendations.
Game and Fish also raised concerns about a lack of surveys conducted on the wind farm’s potential impact to the sharp-tailed grouse species and the company’s plans to offset the project’s impact by preserving existing grassland rather than creating new habitat.
The PSC in 2019 denied a wind farm a siting permit amid concerns about wildlife. Game and Fish said NextEra Energy Resources, the developer of the wind farm proposed for Burke County, “could not have picked a worse spot in the state” with regard to the project’s potential impact to prairie and wetland species. Following the PSC’s denial, the company worked with wildlife officials to relocate turbines, and the commission ultimately approved a permit.
Game and Fish Conservation Supervisor Steve Dyke said he sees some similarities between that project and Bowman Wind, but the issues with the Burke County wind farm were “significantly greater in magnitude.”
Apex told the Tribune it has coordinated with officials from state and federal wildlife agencies.
“Bowman Wind took both agencies’ concerns into account in designing the current project layout, and Bowman Wind plans to address agency comments further at the hearing,” the company said.
Another issue that will come up at the hearing is whether Apex plans to hire local workers to build the wind farm.
The Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota, an affiliate of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, has raised the matter in recent years. It intervened in the Bowman Wind proceeding before the PSC, as it has done in cases involving three other recently proposed wind farms.
Apex has indicated that it plans to hire local workers on a renewable energy project in Minnesota, but the union hasn’t heard of its plans for Bowman Wind, union marketing manager Kevin Pranis said. The union took a neutral stance on the project ahead of the hearing.
“We’re hoping to learn some more about what they have in mind,” Pranis said.
Apex told the Tribune it plans to “maximize the local economic benefits from the construction and operation of the project, including by hiring a local workforce to the greatest extent possible, in line with the project’s safety, cost and timeline requirements.”
The union estimates the two most recent wind farms built in North Dakota employed less than 10% of its workers from within the state, based on surveys it conducted looking at license plates of construction workers. That was in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic caused unemployment to spike.
“There were certainly construction workers looking for work,” Pranis said. “There were fewer local workers on those projects than we’ve seen on almost any project.”
The turbines that would make up Bowman Wind are slated to go south of the communities of Rhame and Bowman.
The $420 million project in Bowman County is expected to have a capacity of 209 megawatts, enough to power nearly 100,000 homes, according to Apex.
The company is considering building a battery storage facility that would hold up to 100 megawatts of electricity generated by the wind farm for as long as four hours before sending it into the power grid. If that plan comes to fruition, it would be the first large-scale battery storage project in North Dakota.
Wind turbines can generate electricity only when the wind is blowing, which is why the wind industry is looking more to battery storage, an emerging technology, as an option.
The hearing is slated to begin at 8 a.m. Mountain time Tuesday at the Four Seasons Pavilion West Wing, 12 Highway 12 E., Bowman.
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