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Wind farms seek flexibility under new turbine lighting law

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wind turbines (copy)

Wind turbines stand out against the colorful sky of the setting sun at a wind farm located 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.

Several companies are seeking special consideration from state regulators when it comes to complying with North Dakota law requiring that wind farms install technology to keep the lights atop turbines from blinking bright red all night.

Newer wind farms have already installed the systems; ones that received state permits before June 2016 have until the end of this year to meet the requirement or possibly be fined. The state does not specify what type of system companies must install, but the existing technology approved for wind farms is radar-based and keeps the lights off unless an aircraft flies in the vicinity.

“I’m not feeling real optimistic that they’re all going to comply,” Public Service Commission Chair Julie Fedorchak said.

The PSC now has the ability to waive the requirement or issue an extension due to technical or economic feasibility reasons after the Legislature earlier this year carved out some flexibility for the commission.

Commissioners have received eight requests along those lines from wind farm operators, and they discussed several at a meeting last week. They will hold hearings on some of the requests in the coming months.

“It’s a case-by-case basis,” Fedorchak said. “We’ll hear from them and listen to what their justification is for the extension and why they didn’t get started sooner on adapting to this technology when they knew the deadline and had a number of years to comply.”

Commissioner Brian Kroshus said it’s “extremely late in the game” for wind farm operators to ask for an extension.

“The public was promised the skies would be dark,” he said. “It was what people expected, and it’s not going to be occurring in some areas.”

The law spelling out the deadlines for installing light mitigation technology passed in 2017. Newer wind farms had to comply by the end of 2019 and several missed the deadline, prompting the PSC to fine their operators as much as $10,000.

Xcel Energy is among the companies that have asked the PSC for an extension this time around. Xcel submitted requests this month for two of its wind farms: Border Winds in Rolette County and Courtenay Wind in Stutsman County. The company said it ran into problems this summer negotiating with local landowners over the terms of installing a radar system.

Allete also is requesting more time to equip its wind farms in Mercer, Morton and Oliver counties with a single radar-based system that could operate across all its facilities in the area. It asked for an extension in August due to issues its supplier has encountered sourcing a piece of equipment needed for the installation. The company attributed the delay to the coronavirus pandemic.

The PSC already granted a request for an extension earlier this year for Montana-Dakota Utilities’ Thunder Spirit wind farm in southwestern North Dakota. The company is interested in pursuing cheaper technology that dims the lights at night based on visibility conditions, but the system has not yet received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Commissioners last week discussed requests from two companies for waivers from the light mitigation requirement because of their projects’ proximity to Air Force activities.

Helicopters from the Minot Air Force Base frequently fly to intercontinental ballistic missile sites scattered throughout the north-central part of the state. Military officials have expressed concerns about radar-based systems, such as a possible scenario in which blinking lights could tip off an enemy to a helicopter’s location at night.

The Air Force raised the issue in a letter to Basin Electric Power Cooperative earlier this year, saying the use of light mitigation technology at the company’s PrairieWinds ND1 wind farm south of Minot “would jeopardize flight safety and security in and around ICBM missile complexes.”

Basin last month requested a waiver from the light mitigation requirement after the state’s change in law took effect.

The change offering the PSC more flexibility came about because of problems that arose regarding a different wind farm slated for Ward and McLean counties. Southern Power proposed the Ruso Wind project, which faced the same concerns from the Air Force as Basin’s wind farm. The PSC denied Ruso Wind a permit last year.

Allete has acquired the project and wrote to the PSC this summer asking the commission to allow proceedings in the case to resume after they were put on hold following the permit denial. The PSC granted the request last week. Allete plans to ask for a waiver from the light mitigation requirement, according to the letter it sent the commission.

The PSC's schedule for hearings related to extension and waiver requests is listed on its website at: www.psc.nd.gov/public/meetings/index.php.

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

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