A wind farm west of Mandan is scheduled to be one of the first in the state to implement an alternative to blinking red lights, but the company says it still needs federal approval before installing the technology.
North Dakota legislators last year directed the Public Service Commission to adopt rules that require light-mitigating technology for wind turbines.
Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said state regulators had already started requiring alternative lighting for wind projects approved since June 2016 to address complaints from the public that the blinking lights ruin the night sky.
“Frequently at our hearings, people who are opposed to the wind development talked about the annoying red blinking lights that were always on with no end in sight,” Fedorchak said. “If there’s a solution to that, we ought to be adopting that solution.”
One technology option is known as the aircraft detection lighting system, a sensor-based system that activates lights on wind turbines only as aircraft approach.
Another option the industry is studying is a dimming technology that reduces the intensity of the lights when conditions are clear.
Fedorchak said the state rules do not specify which technology companies need to use, allowing for flexibility as the technology continues to develop.
North Dakota is the first state to require light-mitigating technology for wind farms.
“Like all new technology, it’s probably not going to be perfect the first time around. There’s probably going to have to be tweaks to improve this once it’s out and operational,” Fedorchak said. “We’re on the cutting edge of this industry nationwide.”
The Oliver III wind farm in Morton and Oliver counties is expected to be among the first in North Dakota to adopt light-mitigating technology. The commission required in its permit that the wind project implement the technology by the end of 2018, subject to approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The owner of the project, NextEra Energy Resources, is waiting for guidance from the FAA before installing the technology, said Bryan Garner, communications manager for NextEra.
“We’re anxious to put this into practice, but really waiting on the FAA because they have not yet approved the technology,” he said.
NextEra installed alternative lighting technology on a wind project in Arizona several years ago that has never been turned on because the FAA hasn’t approved it, Garner said.
“We as a company haven't had the opportunity to be able to fully test it the way we’d like because we have not gotten the approval to be able to activate it,” Garner said.
The Brady wind farms near Dickinson also have a Dec. 31 deadline to install the new technology, contingent on FAA approval.
“As soon as they give us the go-ahead, we’ll be ready to install it as soon as possible,” Garner said.
An FAA spokesman said he could not provide a timeline for the agency's review.
The wind industry is working to be proactive to work with the FAA on best practices, said Beth Soholt, executive director of Wind on the Wires, a wind energy advocacy organization that works in North Dakota and eight other states.
But until there’s an FAA-approved technology that can be deployed, there is a limited number of vendors, Soholt said.
“It’s a bit of a chicken and an egg situation,” she said.
New state rules require all North Dakota wind projects approved after June 5, 2016, to be equipped with a light-mitigating technology system by Dec. 31, 2019.
The deadline for wind farms approved before June 5, 2016, is Dec. 31, 2021.