spitzer wind farm
John Spitzer stands beside one of six wind turbines constructed on his farmland southeast of Wilton. Spitzer expects NextEra Energy to plant three more wind turbines on his property this summer. (MIKE McCLEARY/Tribune)

John Spitzer enjoys the beauty of his land in the spring: green grass, clear blue sky and a spinning wind turbine on the horizon.

“I think they’re beautiful,” the Wilton farmer said.

But some people in the Baldwin area think the turbines are an eyesore that could devalue adjacent property and cause health complications.

“We’re going to lose our very precious spaces,” Vernon Spitzer said.

John Spitzer has six wind turbines on his land. He considers the turbines a good addition to his farm, where they provide extra income to the community, where they provide tax dollars, and to the country, where they provide a sustainable, local energy source.

The American Wind Energy Association estimates North Dakota has the most wind energy potential of any state, with a possible output of 1,210 kilowatt hours. The state’s existing wind energy development has been built almost entirely in the last five years, and state officials believe the wave to harness the wind will gain power.

North Dakota ranks 10th in existing power capacities, with nearly all development in the wind energy industry coming since 2005, said Shane Goettle, director of the state Department of Commerce.

So far, 24 projects with a capacity of 1,202.7 megawatt hours have been completed in the state, while two, with a capacity of 95.4 megawatt hours, are under construction. Another 19 projects, with a capacity of 6,417.5 megawatt hours, have been proposed by letters of intent with the Public Service Commission, but have not been started.

Goettle said the state stands to benefit from additional wind farms. Landowners get ongoing payments for having turbines on their land, power companies have additional electricity to sell, communities have more tax revenue and an expanded tax base, and rural communities get more jobs in the form of wind energy technicians, he said.

Vernon Spitzer, a relative of John Spitzer, worries decisions about wind farms are being made without due consideration to the impact on adjacent landowners and future generations.

The general consensus at early planning meetings for a Burleigh County wind turbine ordinance was that the setback, the distance turbines could be placed from homes, should be half a mile. But that changed later without explanation or reason, he said.

The new county ordinance, used by 11 townships in the county, put the setback from a non-participating landowner’s home at 1,750 feet. The opponents admit they don’t know what problems might result from the decreased setback, though they worry about noise, shadow flicker, low frequency sound and stressors caused by the changing environment.

“I don’t think we really quite understand what those issues might be,” Vernon Spitzer said.

John Spitzer’s brother has a turbine 1,500 feet from his house, 100 feet more than the minimum distance they can be from a house in Ecklund Township. Hearing them from that distance requires listening for them, he said.

“I live three miles from Highway 83; I can hear Highway 83 in the right conditions,” John Spitzer said. “I also live two miles from wind turbines. I cannot hear those wind turbines.” Payments from turbines go into his general farm account, allowing him to make ends meet a little easier.

“It’ll probably keep some farmers on the farm with the additional income,” he said.

The board in Ecklund Township, which John Spitzer serves on, has used new tax money to build roads and maintain existing ones. In Wilton, the school, ambulance squad and fire department get more funding. The ambulance squad now pays volunteers $2 an hour to be on call, resulting in a waiting list of volunteers where there previously was a shortage, John Spitzer said.

Building local renewable energy should be a “goal as great as putting a man on the moon,” to decrease reliance on foreign power sources, he said.

“This is energy independence for America,” he said. “This is a really good thing.”

Ray Wald, of Baldwin, disagrees. Since wind energy power cannot be stored at this time, other power plants still are needed. The country would be “money ahead” if funds were instead spent in filtering systems at coal plants, thus reducing the carbon footprint, he said. He expects electricity rates to increase with more wind energy.

“It’s one of the most inefficient sources of energy we’ve ever had,” he said.

Other opponents in Baldwin have less problems with wind energy than with the proximity of turbines to homes.

Marc Laurie could end up with a wind turbine a little more than 1,750 feet away from his house on adjacent land. He understands they provide steady income for his neighbors. But he worries he won’t be able to sell his property if he needs to and worries that his family’s quality of life could be diminished by the turbines. He would have been OK with the turbines a half mile from his home.

Nextera, the developer of the Wilton wind farm, has worked with owners of property adjacent to turbine sites, Laurie said. He said one man is in negotiations to get work done on his windows, get air conditioning, new siding and insulation and have a deck moved from one side of his house to the other to lessen the effects of a turbine. John Spitzer said the company also has done everything asked of it by landowners with turbines and the township.

“I can’t say enough good about Nextera energy,” he said.

North Dakota’s goal is to have a wind-energy capacity of 5,000 megawatt hours by 2025, Goettle said. He said there is a “reality check” involved due to factors beyond the state’s control in developing the industry.

Having a regular supply of wind isn’t a problem in North Dakota, Goettle said. However, getting transmission lines to markets is more tricky.

While there are federal regulations for siting an oil pipeline, placement of transmission lines deals with crossing numerous regulations across jurisdictions, Goettle said. While the long-term goal is to sell electricity to markets like Chicago, getting it there will be expensive and might be far into the future.

The short-term nature of the renewable energy production tax credit also may be keeping some companies from establishing long-term wind energy plans, Goettle said. The credit has been renewed for less than three years at a time since its inception, making financial planning difficult for companies that are thinking of building.

“Money shies away from uncertainty,” said Mike Fladeland, manager of energy business development for the Department of Commerce. He and Goettle said a national energy policy, including a permanent tax credit, could add some certainty to the industry.

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Wald believes wind farm projects are too reliant on tax breaks.

“All of this here is all done because they’ve got a timeline and they’ve got to rush in and get this done with, because the government is going to be pulling the money out,” he said.

While thousands of wind turbines could change the North Dakota skyline, the Department of Commerce hopes manufacturing companies involved in wind-energy equipment will move in and change the state’s economy as well.

Fladeland said several companies, including LM Glasfiber, DMI Industries and Nordic Fiberglass, already are manufacturing wind turbine components in the state.

The Department of Commerce hopes to court European companies to start up operations in North Dakota by pitching the state’s merits, including the business climate, financial situation, tax incentives and proximity to Canada.

“We’re being pretty aggressive,” Goettle said.

To provide workers for the expected job increase from wind farm development, Lake Region State College in Devils Lake has started a wind energy technician program. The Department of Commerce, along with a variety of power companies, wind farm developers, turbine component manufacturers, community groups and educational groups, have helped get the program going.

“We have attempted to make that a regional wind technician training center second to none,” Goettle said.

As the wind industry develops, the Department of Commerce also is working on improving policies for all the state’s energy sources, both traditional and renewable, through the Empower North Dakota Commission.

“We’re not putting all our eggs in one basket,” Goettle said.

John Spitzer agrees that the state needs to continue marketing its many sources of energy, including wind.

“Yes, we still need the coal industry, but this is an added source of energy,” he said.

(Reach reporter Jenny Michael at 250-8225 or jenny.michael@bismarcktribune.com)

The Changing Landscape

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