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One wind farm granted lighting waiver while North Dakota regulators reject extensions for others

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Wind turbines stand out against the colorful sky of the setting sun at a wind farm in the rolling prairie hills a few miles northwest of Crown Butte Lake in Morton County. The blinking red lights atop the towers indicate their presence to any pilots flying nearby.

A wind farm near intercontinental ballistic missile silos in central North Dakota will not have to install a system to keep the lights atop its turbines from blinking all night.

The Public Service Commission on Wednesday granted Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s request for a waiver from the state’s light mitigation law for its PrairieWinds ND1 wind farm south of Minot. The waiver means its lights can continue to blink at night, but that could change in the future if new technology becomes available that satisfies the Air Force, which flies helicopter missions in the vicinity.

Commissioners denied two other companies’ requests for more time to comply with the end-of-year deadline spelled out in North Dakota's law surrounding the light mitigation systems. The PSC has yet to make a decision in two other cases.

The recent requests came about after the Legislature changed the law earlier this year to allow for greater flexibility in administering the light mitigation requirement over the dozens of wind farms across the state. Wind farms can seek a waiver or extension based on economic or technical feasibility reasons.

The waiver for PrairieWinds stems from the Air Force's concern that installing such a system could pose safety and security risks. The existing technology to mitigate the lights is radar-based and keeps them from blinking unless an aircraft flies in the vicinity. If PrairieWinds were to install it, the lights would blink when helicopters fly about, potentially tipping off an enemy to their locations in an extreme scenario.

The commission granted Basin’s request for a waiver, ordering the company to provide an update every three years on light mitigation options.

“We want to make sure as new options become available for light mitigation technology that this site is continued to be reviewed for its applicability there,” Commission Chair Julie Fedorchak said.

The PSC denied requests from Xcel Energy and Allete for extensions at their wind farms. Xcel had asked for one for Border Winds in Rolette County and Courtenay Wind in Stutsman County after running into problems this past summer negotiating with local landowners as the utility sought to install the systems.

Allete plans to equip its wind farms in Mercer, Morton and Oliver counties with a single radar-based system and asked for an extension due to supply chain delays amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Commissioners denied the companies’ requests, saying that 10 wind farms had already managed to comply with the year-end deadline, which they had known about since the law passed in 2017.

“I find it disappointing given a four-year window that these companies chose so long to wait to get the ball rolling,” Commissioner Randy Christmann said.

The PSC will hear Avangrid Renewables’ request on Friday for an extension at its Rugby Wind facility, and a hearing is slated for next year on Onward Energy Holdings’ request for an extension at its Sunflower wind farm.

Facilities that miss the deadline likely will be fined. The commission issued fines in the past when newer wind farms had to meet a 2019 deadline to install light mitigation systems. The dollar amounts ranged from $1,000 to $10,000.

The upcoming deadline applies to wind farms permitted before June 2016.

Commissioner Brian Kroshus said he believes some of the wind farms requesting extensions might speed up their efforts and come into compliance in time to meet the deadline, given the commission’s message to them in recent months that it might not be as lenient as companies hoped in granting them flexibility.

“I would anticipate having only a handful that won’t be in compliance once we actually get to the deadline,” he said.

Proponents of the light mitigation law say the blinking lights can be a nuisance to people who live in the vicinity of wind farms. Christmann said residents shouldn’t necessarily expect a major difference right away once the technology is installed, as companies need time to see how the systems work and to tweak them so they don't activate when cars or tractors drive by.

He frequently travels past a newer wind farm that had to comply with the 2019 deadline. At first, the lights still blinked frequently at night after the system started operating.

“Now it’s a lot different,” he said. “These things do ultimately work, but they take some time for fine-tuning.”

The commission anticipates asking wind farms for data on how frequently the lights blink once the new systems have had a while to operate, just as it did following the 2019 deadline.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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