BISMARCK — In what one commissioner called a "historic" decision, North Dakota utility regulators denied a siting permit for a wind farm in the state's northwest corner following opposition from state and federal wildlife agencies Wednesday, June 12.
Public Service Commissioners unanimously rejected NextEra Energy Resources' application for the siting permit, the first time they remembered doing so for any energy facility during their tenures. Regulators and project developers typically work out issues before a final decision is made, they said.
NextEra sought to build a 200-megawatt wind farm in Burke County north of Powers Lake. The 23,000-acre facility would have consisted of up to 76 turbines.
But regulatory filings showed federal and state agencies charged with protecting wildlife have long been concerned with the proposed wind farm's location. A North Dakota Game and Fish Department official said upon first hearing about the project in 2016, agency staff indicated the developer "could not have picked a worse spot in the state."
In a letter dated March 6, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service welcomed NextEra's moves to reduce the project's size and contract from a grassland-rich area but ultimately recommended against the location. It noted that a number of bald and golden eagles were observed in the area, which "encompasses a high concentration of significant, relatively rare, high quality breeding waterfowl habitat in North Dakota that also supports high numbers of other wildlife species."
Though developers proposed measures to mitigate impacts to wildlife, commissioners found the project would have had an unacceptable level of "adverse effects" on animal health and safety.
In its order, the three-member, all-Republican commission also said the project would have negatively affected wetlands, which its rules protect from energy facilities unless the applicant shows there's no reasonable alternative. Project developers declined to move to another site "because it would have negatively impacted the efficiency of the wind resource by at least 10 percent," the order said.
"We believe we have adequately mitigated for the environmental impacts of this project and we hope to have the opportunity for reconsideration," Florida-based NextEra said in an emailed statement.
NextEra had already signed a power purchase agreement with Basin Electric Power Cooperative for energy generated by the wind project, according to the commission's order.
Tammy Ibach, director of North Dakotans for Comprehensive Energy Solutions, said local governments and landowners missed out on a new revenue stream. She called the PSC's decision a "loss" for private property rights.
Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak acknowledged their vote may be frustrating for the company and participating landowners but said the decision was "firmly grounded in the law."
"I just firmly believe that this is the right decision based on the evidence of the case, that the company did not meet its burden of proof to show that this project has minimal impact," she said.
Arlo Griesbach, a member of the Burke County Planning and Zoning Commission, attended the meeting with other opponents of the project. He said the planning commission voted against the wind farm only to be overridden by county commissioners.
And after a public hearing earlier this year that lasted about 13 hours, Griesbach gave it about "50-50" odds that state regulators would reject the project.
"They did their homework," he said.
Though the PSC's decision was unusual, the Burleigh County Commission voted to reject another wind farm earlier this year, the Bismarck Tribune reported. During the 2017 session, state lawmakers concerned about the closure of a coal-fired power plant backed off a proposal to impose a moratorium on wind energy development.
But Bob Harms, the policy director for North Dakotans for Comprehensive Energy Solutions, wasn't worried that Wednesday's vote would cast a shadow on the industry, noting that other wind farms are in the works. With plenty of flat and open spaces, North Dakota ranks 10th in the country with 3,155 megawatts of installed wind capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
"It's one project," Harms said.