Climate change

Lawmakers debate future of wind energy

Jessica Unruh

As Rep. Mike Brandenburg sees it, the North Dakota Legislature is “putting the hate on wind.”

He’s a farmer from Edgeley in south central North Dakota. His district has several wind farms, and he’s the assembly’s acknowledged expert on wind power. He’s also its strongest advocate.

But not every legislator sees wind the same way. Bills taking several different approaches have been introduced.

Brandenburg fears these will make the climate worse for wind energy in North Dakota.

Not so, argues Sen. Jessica Unruh. Instead, legislation is intended to make the tax burdens on various energy sources more equal. It’s about parity, she said. Unruh is from Beulah, in the heart of coal country. She’s an environmental specialist for Coteau Properties, a coal-mining company.

Wind energy interests backed a bill put forward by the Legislative Management Committee. This grew out of a study authorized last session, and suggested extending sales tax exemptions affecting other energy sectors to wind farms and taxing the output of coal, gas and wind plants at roughly the same rate per megawatt hour. The bill was defeated in the House early in the session.

A second bill would have changed the formula for taxing wind energy, raising it to offset the federal incentives for renewable resources. That also failed in the House.

A bill sponsored by Unruh changes the allocation of property taxes collected from wind farms. These currently go to counties where the farms are located. Under her bill, 60 percent would go to the state and 40 percent to counties. The bill contains a complicated formula that switches the allocation for existing plants over as much as 20 years.

It ran into trouble last week when members of the Senate Finance and Tax Committee couldn’t agree on a recommendation for the full Senate. Under the rules, the bill must move out of the committee, and it could reach the floor this week – and certainly before the deadline to move bills from one house to another. That’s in late February.

Wind power advocates believe new farms wouldn’t be permitted by county governments if the bill passed, since revenue to counties would be cut. That argument appeared persuasive to some Tax Committee members.

These bills don’t quite exhaust the challenges to wind energy. Bills pending would address how easements are taken and how long they last, impose restrictions on spacing wind turbines relative to occupied buildings, impose bonding for removal of wind turbines no longer in service and to reclaim the land, and require technology that would enable aircraft to spot individual towers. This last could cost wind companies up to $1 million per wind farm, Brandenburg argued, and could jeopardize the profitability of existing farms.

The fate of these wind energy bills likely will have an impact on the future of the industry – one that grew rapidly with the active support of the state Commerce Department. Shane Goettle, director of the department in the administration of Gov. John Hoeven, is lobbying for wind energy firms this session.

According to figures from the Public Service Commission, a total of 1,488 wind turbines are operating in North Dakota. These generate 2,743 megawatts of electricity. About 4,000 megawatts more are planned.

Brandenburg worries that some of these proposed farms could be built in other states, especially South Dakota, where development of wind energy lags, partly because of state policy and partly because transmission infrastructure isn’t as robust as in North Dakota.

He has a colorful analogy to explain what he believes is happening. “Coal is king” in North Dakota electrical generation, he acknowledges. “And wind is queen.” The king, he says “is trying to kick the queen out of the house. What I’m trying to do is to keep peace in the house.”