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Wind policy mugs
From left, Brad Crabtree, policy director for the Great Plains Institute, Kevin Cramer, Public Service Commissioner and Mark Armstrong, Burleigh County Commissioner. (Tribune file photos)

Towering 350 feet above the prairie, wind turbines have taken root as a prominent part of the North Dakota landscape. But as they proliferate, issues of how they are sited, how they are funded and how they fit into the state’s energy sources have been growing with their electricity generation.

Supporters of increased wind development say they produce clean energy from an inexhaustible resource and will help wean the country from imported fuel, and slow climate change. North Dakota’s wind abundance also could boost its growing status as an energy exporter.

“We need to be looking as aggressively at development as we do about oil resources,” said Brad Crabtree, policy director for the Great Plains Institute, a nonprofit organization promoting clean and renewable energy resources.

Detractors claim they are a passing fad dependent on tax subsidies that add stress to the existing energy infrastructure and clutter up the horizon.

“This is going to permanently change the landscape,” said Burleigh County Commissioner Mark Armstrong. “We really haven’t thought it out as a community.”

In an economy where fossil fuels are a major component, wind is sometimes seen as an interloper, propped up by mandates and subsidies.

A number of programs to encourage wind development exist, along with parts of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Crabtree argues that wind’s treatment is no different from assistance received by other energy sources.

“We don’t have a clue what a free market in energy looks like because we’ve never had it,” said Crabtree, who is the Democratic candidate for the Public Service Commission. He said grassroots efforts for wind and other renewables drives development. “I don’t think people are promoting wind just in opposition to fossil fuel.”

In 2007, wind received $23.37 in support per megawatt-hour compared to 25 cents for natural gas and 44 cents for coal, according to an analysis by the federal Energy Information Administration. However, coal still received more total subsidies than wind that year — $854 million compared to $724 million.

Kevin Cramer, a PSC member who is running against Crabtree, said that some level of subsidy for wind is appropriate but should be phased out as the industry establishes itself.

“It’s not different from a lot of emerging technologies and emerging industries” in its reliance on government support, he said. “It’s not an investment that can continue forever, nor should it continue forever.”

Armstrong compares wind development to the push for ethanol, which has struggled to meet expectations for its economic viability.

“Ethanol was the be-all and end-all a few years ago,” said Armstrong, who has pushed for a stricter approach in reviewing proposed Burleigh County wind developments. “Cautious is the word that we should use on this.”

A central issue in wind development is the placement of the towers and the rights of landowners and their neighbors.

People concerned with the landscape and the prospect of having towers occupying a ridge for years to come prefer that they be kept farther from property lines, while others argue for compensation for landowners who live with towers near by but do not receive any benefit. Armstrong argued for longer setbacks and a strict decommissioning plan for the Burleigh wind farm.

“I’ll be blunt,” he said, summing up landowners’ usual arguments against development. “They’re ugly, they’re noisy and I moved out to the country for peace and quiet.”

The state does not have a uniform set of ordinances regarding the placement of towers or with concept wind wake, which refers to the fact that wind blows across everyone’s land, but wind farms often benefit only the owners of the land where they stand.

According to PSC member Tony Clark, the state looks at precedence when reviewing new developments, and stricter local ordinances trump the state’s standards. He does not see a need for a statewide approach yet.

“I don’t know if there is a perfect answer,” he said.

Resolving siting issues before they become contentious is essential to supporting development, according to Crabtree.

“As a state, we’ve been doing an exceptionally bad job on siting,” he said.

Crabtree points to his own experience helping create a wind ordinance in Dickey County, where he ranches, when discussing the importance of fair siting regulations. Once negotiations over wind development become a source of acrimony between those with more to gain and those with more to lose, they can choke off development before it begins.

“All it takes is a handful of angry people to stop a project,” Crabtree said. “Once that happens we can completely lock out wind energy development in this state.”

Cramer’s preference is to let individual municipalities decide how accommodating they will be to wind developers.

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“I don’t think we ever want to intrude the right of a county or township to have more restrictive rules,” he said.

If sentiment turns against wind development, North Dakota would miss a lucrative opportunity as an energy exporter, Crabtree said.

The Midwest Governors Association has endorsed a goal of 30 percent of energy generation for the region coming from renewable sources by 2030. If North Dakota provided 10 percent of that, it would require wind development here to expand 10 times.

“We’re really behind the curve in terms of grasping the potential,” Crabtree said. Other Midwest states are discussing off-shore wind on the Great Lakes to meet the renewable goal. “They’re going to build wind energy, and the question is, is North Dakota going to be a part of that?”

Crabtree acknowledged that some trade-offs come with wind farms, but he said that the role the state could play in increasing American energy independence are enough to justify the costs.

While more developments mean more opportunities for landowners, others air their objections to the costs of wind. Clark and Cramer both said that more evidence of that is coming out during PSC hearings on wind.

“We’ve seen more and more at siting meetings, more voices of opposition,” Clark said.

Crabtree questions whether the state has the right political environment to embrace wind with the enthusiasm he believes it warrants.

Armstrong said he supports economic development, but thinks that caution is necessary to protect the landscape if the promise of wind is never fulfilled.

“This is an evolving industry, Armstrong said. “The rules are being made by the industry and the government is evolving. It’s tough for us as elected officials to find that middle ground.”

(Reach reporter Christopher Bjorke at 250-8261 or chris.bjorke@bismarcktribune.com)

The Changing Landscape

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