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Wind farm dismantling method prompts debate among North Dakota regulators

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Wind turbines stand out against the colorful sky of the setting sun earlier at a wind farm located in the rolling prairie hills a few miles northwest of Crown Butte Lake in Morton County.

North Dakota regulators on Wednesday approved a wind farm’s plan for dismantling its turbines at the end of the facility’s life using a new method that drew a comparison to chopping down trees.

The Public Service Commission approved the proposal in a 2-1 vote amid a disagreement over the potential environmental impact of the method and its cost, among other issues. Also at Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners denied a different wind farm’s request for more time to comply with the state’s light mitigation law, and they approved a pipeline and also an electrical transmission project.

The Tatanka Wind Farm operated by Acciona straddles the border between the Dakotas and includes 61 turbines on the North Dakota side in Dickey County. The facility sought the commission’s approval of a new decommissioning plan upon learning of a different, cheaper method it could use to one day bring down the turbines.

Tatanka in regulatory filings proposes using a crane mounted on a truck to remove the turbines’ fiberglass blades. At each tower, workers would then attach a cable to the top of the structure and to a piece of heavy equipment such as a bulldozer. They would then use a cutting torch to remove wedges from the steel tower so that the spot would serve as a hinge as the bulldozer pulls down the tower onto the site’s access road.

Commissioner Randy Christmann compared the process to that in old films in which someone would use an ax to cut into the bottom of a tree, causing it to fall down.

Tatanka says its process would cost $9.5 million, as opposed to $15 million under a plan previously approved by the commission that would use a larger crawler crane to take down the structures and would require more workers.

The company would secure a lesser amount of $9.5 million in a bond, a form of financial assurance that money will be available to dismantle the site.

Christmann voted against the facility’s new plan, saying he worries that the state already does not require enough financial assurance and that other wind farm operators will seek to follow suit to reduce their costs in the wake of Tatanka’s proposal.

“It’s kind of an unknown,” he said. “These are big turbines and we don’t know for sure what it’s going to cost when they start being deconstructed.”

Commissioner Brian Kroshus said the PSC can always ask a wind farm operator to make a new decommissioning plan. He and Commission Chair Julie Fedorchak voted for Tatanka’s new plan.

“This cost-estimate is in line and actually a little bit higher on a per-turbine basis in comparison to other similar facilities that the commission has already approved decommissioning plans for,” he said.

He added that there is no “clear, traditional path” to disassembling wind farms because relatively few across the country have come down. The method Tatanka plans to use has been used before in several instances, according to documents the company has filed with the PSC.

Christmann said the Tatanka wind farm differs from other wind farms Kroshus referenced because it is in a more remote, hilly area with a lot of native grass and little agricultural land. He expressed concern about the possibility that some towers could still cut across land near access roads when they come down.

“This is going to be a very, very complex area to reclaim wherever any damage is done,” he said.

Tatanka in its filings says its proposed method “has several advantages over disassembly using large crawler cranes,” including minimizing crop loss and surface disturbance.

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“This type of removal eliminates the use of crane paths and crane pads that are otherwise necessary to disassemble the components of a turbine,” one document states.

Kroshus said that “when the private sector champions a better way to do things, that’s a win-win across the board.”

“When government discourages innovation and efficiency for any industry, for any energy type, I think government has in effect lost its way,” he said.

Tatanka also plans to remove an additional foot of the turbines’ concrete foundations beyond what’s required by law, something all the commissioners indicated they appreciate.

Transmission line

Also on Wednesday, the PSC approved a Montana-Dakota Utilities transmission project meant to reroute segments of a 1.5-mile line at Heskett Station in Mandan.

The 230-kilovolt line will connect to a new substation. The change is related to MDU’s plan to retire Heskett’s coal units in March 2022 and add another natural gas unit.

Fedorchak said MDU constructed the project before receiving a permit and that she was disappointed the utility “stumbled this way.” Some of the poles it installed are too close to nearby homes, and the company is moving them, she said.

MDU spokesman Mark Hanson said work to relocate the poles could start as soon as next week. He said the reason the project was constructed before it was permitted was because the utility initially considered it to be two separate projects, each of a shorter length falling outside of PSC jurisdiction.

Wind farm lighting

The PSC denied another wind farm’s request for more time to comply with the state’s light mitigation law. The state requires that wind farms use technology to keep the red lights atop turbines from blinking all night long.

Rugby Wind, operated by Avangrid Renewables, had requested an extension beyond the year-end deadline, citing global supply chain issues delaying the arrival of some parts of the system it plans to install at the Pierce County facility. The system is radar-based and would turn the lights back on when an aircraft flies in its vicinity.

The commission earlier this month denied similar extension requests from other wind farms.

Oil pipeline

Commissioners approved a short oil pipeline meant to connect to the Dakota Access Pipeline in Williams County.

Kinder Morgan subsidiary Hiland Crude plans to build a 2.9-mile pipeline beginning at its Epping Station. The line would have a capacity of 63,000 barrels per day.

Oil transported by Dakota Access is carried from North Dakota to Illinois.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or


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