North Dakota has more wind power potential than any other US state and the enthusiasm of its citizens for harnessing the wind that blows across the region's bare prairies is almost as boundless as the potential. Yet North Dakota has just one commercial wind turbine -- a 900 kW NEG Micon -- that did not begin producing energy until January 2002.
Still, the lack of wind turbines on the flat landscape failed to dampen spirits at North Dakota's third annual wind power conference on February 22 in Grand Forks. Instead, the event set a goal to raise 200 MW of wind turbines in the next two years. "We're dead last in trees, but dead first in our opportunity to produce wind energy," said Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. "Let's produce more and do it in an environmentally protective way."
North Dakota is a state where coal-fired power plants produce more energy than the state needs. Yet Dorgan says that wind power "doesn't threaten coal interests, it adds to it." Dorgan sponsored the third annual conference, with the help of the Energy & Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks. The event's size, which at 714 participants rivals attendance at national conferences, is just more proof of wind's popularity in the state as a way to generate electricity.
But first the state must work through several limitations, Dorgan said. One is a national energy policy that seems to be going backwards instead of looking to the future. "Is our energy policy about yesterday or is it about tomorrow?" the senator asked. "Every day that we wake up and have the country's oil supply connected to that [Middle East] region of the world is dangerous to the US. Let's produce more, but if that's all we do, that's yesterday's policy." He called for a greater focus on "limitless and sustainable energy."
Both approaches may find their way into the federal energy policy, according to David Garman, the US Department of Energy's assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. He also implied the Bush Administration will continue to push for oil exploration in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the Administration's most controversial energy proposal and one that could stop progress on any federal policy. "America has great renewable energy potential," Garman said. "What Alaska is to oil, North Dakota is to wind. While we have to tap Alaska, we also must tap North Dakota."
However Congress and the Administration deal with a national energy policy, North Dakota will still have to solve its other limitation on wind energy development -- getting wind produced electricity to a market. The state's power producers already generate 4800 MW, 93% with coal, and ship 20% of it out of state. Transmission lines to Minnesota, the only large electricity market nearby, are already over-scheduled. At this point, without statewide green pricing programs, electricity consumers have no way to tell their utilities they want more wind power. "There's no question we can put up wind turbines," said North Dakota Governor John Hoeven. "The real challenge is finding a way to get this energy to market."
Although 31 transmission studies are currently in the works, they do not deal with the numerous problems that are keeping new transmission lines off the drawing boards. Even when siting new transmission lines in remote areas, where wind turbines are often located, the process is contentious, said consultant Ed DeMeo. The risk inherent in building and owning a transmission line and the fact that landowner compensation is not tied to the value of transporting energy are additional hurdles, he said.
DeMeo pointed out that when Europe decides it wants clean energy, it translates that into public policy. "But the US is controlled by the traditional power sector who, for the most part, don't want to change anything. Still, it all depends on public policy and decisions."
One way to unlock North Dakota's winds, said the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Larry Flowers, is through green tags. The state's consumers would absorb wind energy produced in the state, but sell the green attributes elsewhere. At some point, however, the state will still have to export excess energy -- and transmission again becomes an issue, he said.
The cost of a transmission solution would actually be minimal, said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) William Longenecker, who pointed out that large transmission projects have a small impact on rates. If transmission owners across the country boosted transmission capacity by 20%, he said, it would only cost consumers 1% more on their electricity bills. "But that would ease congestion, allow integration of wind and make energy markets more competitive," he added.
Continued delays in building new transmission infrastructure carries a cost, said FERC commissioner Norma Mead Brownell. "We need to refocus the debate on restructuring the energy markets. It's about economic development and creating infrastructure. The decline in the development of infrastructure is costing us billions of dollars each year and lost opportunities because we are not bringing renewables to market as quickly as they should."
Landowners out in force
More than half of those who attended the one-day conference were landowners who want to know how to get a wind turbine sited on their land. Others were wind energy experts from federal and state government. A few were developers and many were business people. But all were convinced that wind could bring a mini-economic boom to the state's lagging economy.
The state already has some major wind infrastructure in place, with more than 300 jobs directly tied to the wind industry. LM Glasfiber of Denmark, the largest blade manufacturer in the world, located a manufacturing plant in Grand Forks in 1999. DMI Industries in Fargo has built turbine towers for a series of wind power projects, such as Peetz in Colorado, Top of Iowa, and Indian Mesa in Texas. According to DMI's Steven Wenzel, the company is planning a $5 million expansion of its facilities and will soon be the biggest tower manufacturer in North America.
Larry Leistritz, a professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo, said the economic impacts of wind development could be significant. His studies show a proposed 100 MW project in the northeast of the state that with 71, 1.5 MW turbines would cost $100 million to build and directly contribute $1,369,000 to the local economy. Secondary economic effects would produce about $28 million locally and $49 million statewide, providing 626 full time jobs locally and 2200 statewide. The numbers include estimated royalties to farmers of $4,000.
"Wind does bring substantial economic benefits both for rural areas where wind farms are located and cities where manufacturing is located," Leistritz said. "Those windiest areas may well be areas that need the most economic development."
It will take public policy directives, at the national and state levels, to bring down the barriers to wind energy in North Dakota. The limitations, according to nearly every speaker at the conference, are less technical than they are limitations in policy. North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad told delegates he has talked to wind developers who say that once the issues are ironed out, they will spend $1 billion in the state. "Wind can help transform the economy of North Dakota and it needs as much help as it can get," he said. "We just need to break down the barriers to make that dream a reality."