Wind Energy Sector Sees Massive Expansion in North Dakota

With the demand for clean energy growing, the Bismarck Tribune delved deeper into the positive impact of capturing the momentum for growth in wind energy in North Dakota

Excerpt from article:

GRAND FORKS — Those driving 3 miles north of Grand Forks may see something strange: long, narrow, pointed white giants sailing through the sky onto rail cars.

Don’t be alarmed. It may be difficult to tell for those who don’t know, but the 25,000-pound, 187-foot structures being loaded onto trains are some of the first wind turbine blades LM Wind Power in Grand Forks ships across the country by rail. The rail facility was completed in December, with LM sending out its first shipment of blades about two weeks ago.

“The more they produce, the more we can get out,” said Don Spicer, site coordinator for TP&L Management Solutions, a Casper, Wyo., company that built and owns the Grand Forks rail facility. “We have the opportunity with the rail to ship them out at a great price versus trucking them.”

A train carrying 36 blades for wind turbines will leave the facility once a week. That means 36 fewer semis meant to haul blades will be free to haul something else once a week, cutting down expenses, shipment time and truck traffic.

Dozens of blades are waiting at the rail yard to be shipped to Kansas and California as staff work to load the white giants onto rail cars.

The construction of the rail facility is just one indicator of the wind industry’s growth. The sector in the U.S. had its second-strongest quarter, and the American Wind Energy Association announced last Thursday that near-record growth made wind energy the largest source of renewable electric capacity in the U.S. ahead of hydro power.

Of the roughly 3,000 megawatts in wind farms that went online in the past decade, 1,000 megawatts were completed in the past 10 months.

“That’s the way it is just surging on us,” said North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Randy Christmann.

Wind boom

The construction of wind farms in North Dakota began in the late 1990s and only recently have started to surge, Christmann said. The potential for capturing wind for energy in North Dakota is high, particularly in the western and south-central part of the state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which ranked North Dakota sixth in 2014 for wind energy potential and 11th in utility-scale generation.

“We see incredibly strong activity across the country,” AWEA senior analyst Hannah Hunt said. “We do expect to see this success story continue.”

Hunt said 89 percent of the wind farms installed last year occurred in the Midwest. AWEA estimated wind power could double its output over the next five years, supplying 10 percent of U.S. electricity by 2020 and 20 percent by 2030.

Texas is the leader in producing wind energy -- last year, it became the first state to surpass a capacity of 20,000 megawatts. Of the 41 states that have wind farms, North Dakota ranked fourth in terms of installation of wind energy.

Hunt said building farms and producing wind energy has become more affordable in recent years. Wind towers are larger and produce more power than early models. As technology advances, more companies have looked to get into the sector, whether as manufacturers or customers, Hunt said. That means more jobs.

“We know now that -- this is a statistic reported through the U.S. Department of Labor -- the wind turbine technician position is the fastest-growing job in the United States,” Hunt said, adding there has been a two-thirds reduction in cost in building turbines in the past seven years.

While wind energy has become more economical than previous years, there is no doubt that subsidies from the federal government have helped it along.

Companies have used tax credits to subsidize wind projects across the country, including in North Dakota. After being renewed several times, the 2015 Congress agreed to phase out the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit on an 80-60-40 percent schedule, with the credit ending in 2019.

Christmann cited tax credits that have been extended to wind companies over the years as a catalyst for the wind energy’s growth, with many trying to qualify for subsidies.

Hunt called the tax credits a success policy that helped the wind industry grow and produce as much energy as possible.

“The phaseout is a done deal,” she said.

Opposition growing

Not everyone in North Dakota has been receptive to the wind energy sector. Landowners in Stark County protested an 87-turbine wind farm last year that ultimately was approved by the Public Service Commission. Before that, the PSC maybe heard from one or two opponents. The Stark County project, proposed by NextEra Energy Resources, presented 15 hours of testimony, the longest PSC hearing on a wind project.

“It’s getting more noticeable,” Christmann said of opposition to wind farms in North Dakota.

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