This past week we’ve run a series of articles from our corporate parent, GateHouse Media, on wind energy. The overwhelming evocation of the series is one of mistrust, deceit, and jeopardy.
This past week we’ve run a series of articles from our corporate parent, GateHouse Media, on wind energy. The overwhelming evocation of the series is one of mistrust, deceit, and jeopardy. If what GHM reporters write is true, then it seems wind farms should play little future role in America’s energy generation grid. Certainly those that pay attention have heard and read the stories of health concerns, of migratory bats and birds shredded by the blades of turbines, and of microclimates created by wind farms; the effects of any can hardly be assessed yet—nor can, by relation, the albedo effect of giant solar arrays in the deserts. We know the effects of coal, hydroelectric dams, nuclear, and although the growth is limited, of biomass. But are these stories apocryphal or God’s own truth?
More than likely they are somewhere in-between. Somewhere in-between because here in North Dakota wind is big. In this area wind is really big.
There are wind farms all around Ramsey County, in Cavalier, Rolette, and Barnes counties, and larger ones are proposed and permitted. Two nearby wind farms provide over a million dollars a year to their counties in tax revenue. And Lake Region State College has one of the top rated wind technician programs in the U.S.
Coal is still king in North Dakota, but wind, pardon the pun, is picking up. Energy generated from wind accounts for nearly twenty-five percent of the energy produced in North Dakota, and it promises to increase over the next decade. “Utilities have to go where the low-cost options are,” said Jay Johnson, “and right now that’s wind.” Johnson is the wind technology instructor at LRSC.
Border Winds farm is one of the nearby wind farms. It’s seventy-five turbines over 19,000 acres, produce 150 MW, and is owned and operated by Xcel Energy. The project was begun in 2003 and went online July 2016. “There were some hold ups,” said George Youngerman, “federal tax credits, finding a developer. But the long term benefit to the area is very positive.” Youngerman is the Director of the Rolla Job Development Authority. One megawatt (1 MW) can power 1,000 homes.
The project required a $260 million investment, Youngerman said, and during the two seasons of construction there were “upwards of 200 workers in Rolla.” Using a conservative multiplier of three, that was a lot of money in the community for those two seasons. Now, there are ten permanent, full-time Xcel employees for the Rolla area.
“The farm is generally acceptable locally across the community,” he said, “and the annual tax revenue is somewhere near $600,000.”
“For 2018, the tax is projected $680,000,” said the Rolette County treasurer’s office. “The money doesn’t go into the general fund, but is distributed to entities with levies. The tax dollars pay the levies.”
“There are annual lease payments to the land owners,” said Youngerman. “The productive life of the turbines is twenty- to twenty-five years.”
In Cavalier County, home of the Langdon Wind Energy Center, for which $373,000 was paid in property taxes for 2017. The farm was built by Florida Power & Light, then bought by NextEra Energy Resources, from whom OtterTail buys 40.5 MW and Minnkota Power Cooperative buys the remainder, and both have a twenty-five year purchase agreement with NextEra. The farm has 106 turbines and produces 159 MW. OtterTail also purchases power from four other wind farms, and from LRSC.
“We positioned our wind turbine away from homes so there’d be no noise and no flicker,” said Doug Darling. “It’s quite a process to put one up. Our contract with the land owner has an inflation accelerator, and a decommissioning process. We didn’t need one at the time because we generate less than 5 MW, but we have one.” Darling is president of LRSC.
The turbine is 397 feet tall, and started generating power in 2013. “We expect a fifteen year payback on the $4 million dollar investment,” said Darling, “with a twenty-five year life expectancy for the turbine. Two-thirds of the power is sold to OtterTail, and we use the rest, which is a considerable savings for the taxpayers of North Dakota.”
LRSC’s turbine is a classroom, too. The wind tech program at LRSC is nine months to certification, after which time the wind tech can complete an Associates degree online, something LRSC offers because wind tech are picked up immediately. “We had recruiters from some major companies here last year,” said Darling, “and the techs were overwhelmed—you would’ve thought they were professional athletes at draft time. I finally said to the recruiters, ‘Do you think you could let them finish their certifications first?’”
“Wind techs are the second fastest growing profession in the U.S.,” said Johnson, the wind tech instructor. “Two techs are needed for every twenty towers, and the starting wage is $60,000 a year.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently projected Wind Service Technician to be the second fastest growing occupation for the next decade. From 2016 to 2026, the national number of wind service technician jobs is projected to jump ninety-six percent, increasing the need for trained technicians.
“It’s a rural profession and allows young people to stay around,” said Darling, “and make a good living.”
The technology of wind is changing, too. Drones are taking over the inspection of turbine blades, no more descending on ropes, climbing back up, descending again. The drones let the tech do the inspection from the ground, and often allow for closer looks. The size and efficiency of the generating units are increasing, too. Where the “older” units were about 2.5 MW, the newer ones are more than 4 MW. This means more power from fewer turbines and a smaller footprint, or twice as much from the same area.
“The major utilities are divesting from fossil fuels,” said Johnson, “and moving to renewables. Demand surges can be met more quickly and cheaply from natural gas turbines—essentially jet engines—so the idea that storage is key is not as important. The wind is always blowing somewhere. What’s needed is a network that will provide power to those places where the wind isn’t blowing. That’s not too far down the road.”