North Dakota keeps adding wind turbines. Some aren't happy about it
BISMARCK — Bob Granlund built a rural home in central North Dakota with the intention of retiring in it. He stuck to that goal by rebuilding “the exact same house” after it burned down in 2000.
But after hearing about plans for a wind farm nearby, the Sheridan County resident is worried his picturesque views could be tainted by rows of turbines across the landscape.
“If this wind farm goes, I have to look at these towers the rest of my life, and that doesn’t really thrill me,” he said. “Some people might think they’re good-looking — I don’t particularly think that they are.”
Flush with fossil fuels, North Dakota is increasingly becoming a pin cushion for wind turbines thanks to wide open spaces, windy skies and a larger push toward green energy. It ranks 10th in the country for installed wind capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association, and there are more than 1,700 turbines in service here.
But the growth in development has also faced some pockets of resistance in the past year. Burleigh County officials rejected plans for a wind farm near Bismarck after opponents donned red T-shirts and crowded the local civic center, and state regulators sided with wildlife officials in denying a separate proposal for the state’s northwest corner.
To project opponents, the rejections come amid growing unrest over wind energy development. Dave Nehring said he didn’t pay much attention to the turbines until some were being planned near his property east of Bismarck, which he worried would affect property values and wildlife.
The experience prompted Nehring to launch North Dakota Visionkeepers, which he described as an “information clearinghouse” to boost grassroots efforts against wind farms. He said his crusade is more substantive than a "not in my backyard" attitude and argued wind development is being propped up by tax breaks.
“The more I found out, the angrier I became,” he said.
Public Service Commissioner Randy Christmann, a Republican and former lawmaker from the state's coal-producing region, said he's noticing more complaints about wind development.
“I think most of the concerns that we hear … from citizens is just a disdain for the idea of North Dakota kind of building this out to where there’s just wind turbines wherever you look and we no longer have a rural skyline,” he said.
Wind energy advocates say the two recent project denials weren’t signs of a larger trend pointing to a groundswell of opposition. Chris Kunkle, government and regulatory affairs manager for wind developer Apex Clean Energy, said North Dakota remains "business-friendly" with plenty of wind to keep turbines spinning. He said developers are still planning to build wind farms after a major federal tax credit is phased out.
“We still view North Dakota very much as a state that’s open for business,” said Kunkle, who also chairs an industry group dubbed Wind Industry of North Dakota.
'Begging' for wind farms?
North Dakota has rapidly added wind power generation over the past two decades, from less than one megawatt in 1999 to 3,155 megawatts this year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. That steep climb has outpaced the national growth rate.
The industry has been aided by a growing desire for renewable energy amid worries over climate change. Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, a major utility in North Dakota, is aiming to provide its customers with 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050.
Wind farms have also been pitched as a way to help rural economies through tax revenue, jobs and payments to landowners. And in Grand Forks, 1,000 people are employed by the LM Wind Power turbine blade plant.
Republican Rep. Mike Brandenburg, a pro-wind lawmaker from Edgeley, said “people are begging for these wind farms” in areas that can use the economic boost.
"There's not a lot of industries that are in a position to inject $500 million in new private capital into a very rural area," Kunkle said. "I think there's a deeper understanding by policymakers about just the magnitude of the benefits that these projects are bringing."
But Brandenburg's fellow lawmakers haven’t always felt the same way. Worried about the closure of coal-fired power plants that provide most of the state's electricity generation, state lawmakers proposed but ultimately backed away from a moratorium on wind energy development in 2017.
In response, companies formed Wind Industry of North Dakota and hired lobbyists to stay on top of policy issues in Bismarck.
“I think we as an industry kind of came together and realized we’re a big player in this state we need to be better organized,” Kunkle said.
Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, a Republican, said she has cautioned developers that North Dakota isn’t anti-wind, but she said regulators are serious about following the siting law. The three-member PSC rejected NextEra Energy Resources' plans for a wind farm in Burke County in June in part because it would have affected wetlands, which their rules protect from energy development.
Kathy Beard opposed the project's construction in what she called "a little bit of God's country." Though her home is protected by trees, she said others would have been affected by "shadow flicker," or the moving shadow caused by spinning turbine blades.
Beard said the proposal has caused a lot of "friction" in the community. The Burke County Planning and Zoning Commission had voted against the wind farm before county commissioners approved it.
"It's really torn the county apart," said Beard, who is Nehring's sister.
NextEra has said it plans to submit a new application for a wind farm in the area. The company didn't respond to an interview request this week.
Brian Ross, program director for the Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that works toward "decarbonization" of the economy, said there's some "wind fatigue" occurring in rural areas, though he said younger generations are more likely to accept the sight of spinning turbine blades. He said local communities should plan for accelerating wind development pressure as it becomes more economical.
"Up until fairly recently, a few wind turbines were quaint. And now, people are starting to realize that this is a bigger thing," Ross said. "People don't like change, and that's kind of what we're seeing now."
It's unclear how widespread anti-wind sentiments are in North Dakota, but survey results released late last year by North Dakotans for Comprehensive Energy Solutions, a pro-wind group, found only 26% of respondents said wind farms were an "eye sore." Meanwhile, state regulators have addressed a frequent complaint of landowners by requiring technology to mitigate the tower's blinking red lights.
Fedorchak hesitated to say there's been growing opposition from landowners, but she senses wildlife agencies are increasingly concerned about wind development. North Dakota Game and Fish Department Director Terry Steinwand said his agency hasn't changed its stance and evaluates projects on a case-by-case basis.
"We agree with (Gov. Doug Burgum's) all-of-the-above strategy for energy," he said.
Kunkle said wind developers are challenged by disputing a "lot of misinformation" on projects adversely affecting property values and health, though he acknowledged wind turbines cause a "visual impact."
"But once you actually take the time and start educating folks and providing real, credible, third-party resources that people can review, you start to move people pretty quickly," he said.