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North Dakota regulators' split decision highlights continued debate over wind farms

BISMARCK — North Dakota utility regulators signaled to Xcel Energy that it could seek to recover the cost of several wind farms through its customers’ bills Thursday, Dec. 6, as they acknowledged growing concerns from the public about such projects.

The eight projects consisting of roughly 1,850 megawatts were given an “advance determination of prudence” and are located in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. The two in North Dakota are already under construction.

Public Service Commission Chairman Randy Christmann was the lone dissenting vote on the three-member, all-Republican panel. He blamed requirements from Minnesota regulators and expiring wind energy tax credits while noting Xcel has acknowledged that not all of the generation is needed at this time.

“We should always prioritize the needs of North Dakota citizens over arbitrary political preferences of regulators from outside jurisdictions,” Christmann said. “Like an out-of-control Black Friday shopper, the only justification for this massive additional spending spree is that the price is right.”

Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said Xcel’s request was “part of the complete transformation that’s occurring on our nation’s electric grid” with a shift toward more renewable resources.

PSC staff estimated North Dakota customers could save $84 million from the projects, according to Commissioner Brian Kroshus.

The PSC’s vote came on the heels of the Burleigh County Planning and Zoning Commission’s Wednesday night decision to deny a permit for a separate wind farm southeast of Bismarck. More than 500 people attended the event at the Bismarck Event Center, the Bismarck Tribune reported.

During the 2017 legislative session, North Dakota lawmakers considered but ultimately rejected a two-year moratorium on new wind projects.

North Dakota is home to nearly 3,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity, 11th most in the nation, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Kroshus said wind farms are drawing concerns from the public as they become more ubiquitous.

“I don’t think there’s any question it will, in all likelihood, become more challenging to construct wind facilities because the public is asking more questions,” he said.

Dave Sederquist, a senior regulatory consultant for Xcel, said wind projects will continue to be built in the region if costs stay low.

“And so again the issue that North Dakota needs to decide is does it want to benefit from the economic activity of building and having projects located in the state,” he said in an email. “These projects will be located somewhere in the region.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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