New Amendment Could Reignite Fight in Legislature Over Wind Energy


A row of wind turbines towers over the landscape near Edgeley, N.D., Sept. 16, 2003. There's a new harvest taking place on the North Dakota prairie this fall. Look to the western horizon here and see 41 glistening white pinwheels turning on the Coteau Ridge, capturing the breeze with swinging arms and spinning it into electricity that's shipped out on high-voltage lines. The wind turbines, each securely bolted to the top of 213-foot, North Dakota-made towers, comprise the state's first two commercial-scale wind farms. (AP Photo/The Forum, Darren Gibbins)

The joke among lawmakers this legislative session is that the wind energy industry, exercised by legislation aimed at undermining some of advantages they’ve been given in the law, has been stimulating the economy of Bismarck with the number of lobbyists they’ve parachuted in to work at the session.

And the fight isn’t over yet.

It’s been a long, strange trip for SB2314 so far. In its original form the bill, introduced by Senator Jessica Unruh (R-Beulah), would have stopped wind energy’s preferential treatment in getting to sell their power into the grid before anyone else, and would also have prohibited any electrical rate increases in North Dakota justified in any way by green energy mandates in other states.

I thought that was solid legislation, but it got a “hog house” amendment from Senator Dwight Cook (R-Mandan) turning it into a moratorium on new wind projects in the state. That iteration of the bill drew so much opposition from the aforementioned wind energy lobbyists, and their allied lawmakers, that it was again amended into a study which passed the Senate on a 42-4 vote last month.

When a controversial bill like this one gets turned into a study that’s kind of the Legislature’s way of tabling it without killing it.

Now the bill is before the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and an amendment has been submitted to turn it back from a study into actual policy.

You can read the amendment in full below, provided to me by a lawmaker, but this is the gist of it:

In plain language, anyone wanting to build a new wind farm has to prove that we need the energy and that it won’t further destabilize the state’s energy grid.

The latter is the most important issue.

See, the problem with theĀ status quo is that the wind companies not only get a heavy subsidy through a tax credit (which everyone has been saying is going to expire for years but never, ever seems to go away) but they also get to sell their power into the grid first. Other sources for electricity – coal, natural gas, etc. – only get to sell their energy once the wind energy folks sell all of theirs.

That’s been great for wind. As of October wind energy made up about 20 percent of the power produced in North Dakota. Except that market share is built on subsidies and government-mandated demand, and there are some ugly side effects.

Because wind is an intermittent power source – they only produce power when the wind is blowing – that means all the other power plants get only table scraps when the wind is blowing, yet still have to be ready with enough capacity to provide all the power the grid needs when the wind isn’t blowing.

The more wind power we add to that situation the worse it gets.

Which is what this amendment is hoping to head off.

I’m told the committee will be taking up the amendment tomorrow. The wind energy folks may have to send in another dozen or so lobbyists to protect their most favored status in current law.

Here’s the full amendment (click for a larger view):