Congestion on transmission lines hinders new North Dakota wind farms

Source: By AMY R. SISK, Bismarck Tribune • Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. — As wind developers seek to build more wind farms in North Dakota, they’re encountering a problem: congestion on the power lines.

The topic came up Wednesday in a discussion involving the Public Service Commission and wind industry representatives, who told regulators that the issue is causing companies to think twice about locating a project in the state.

“There is just no room on the transmission system,” said Chris Kunkle, government and regulatory affairs manager with Apex Clean Energy.

The issue is not unique to North Dakota. It’s a problem in surrounding states, too, given the abundant wind resources in the upper Great Plains and the regional nature of the electric grid. Electricity generated at a wind farm or coal plant in one state often crosses state lines to reach markets in other areas.

Wind companies are having a tough time obtaining approval from grid operators to build new projects. Proposed wind farms — and other types of power generators — must first undergo an engineering study to determine their impact on the grid and identify any necessary updates to power lines or other parts of the transmission system.

Sometimes, developers learn that their projects will prompt upgrades with a hefty price tag in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, said Beth Soholt, executive director of the Clean Grid Alliance. The cost currently falls entirely to the developers putting forward the projects, though the upgrades can provide benefits to others.

Soholt said that structure is unsustainable.

“Things have changed, and we need to reevaluate what we do going forward,” she said.

Any changes would come from grid operators such as the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which oversees part of the grid in North Dakota, and likely require approval from federal regulators, she said.

Soholt told the regulators that the state can help grid operators work through the transmission congestion problem by giving an indication of where the state wants to see wind development go and what sort of grid-related infrastructure is needed. She said it would also help to gather input from people involved in the technical aspects of power generation to identify specific power lines to target for upgrades.

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first of what’s expected to become semiregular discussions between the PSC and the wind industry. Commissioners said they hold similar meetings with other industries they regulate, such as coal and oil.

The conversation on Wednesday also focused on new state rules surrounding the lights atop wind turbines.

New lighting technology required for N.D. wind farms, but not yet approved by FAA

The Legislature in 2017 directed the PSC to adopt rules requiring light-mitigating technology so that the red lights don’t blink all night, ruining the view of the dark sky.

Some wind farm owners are installing radar technology to detect when planes are flying nearby, at which point the lights would turn on until the aircraft passes.

Many wind developers indicated that they are in the process of installing the technology on their turbines.

Jonathan Willson of Capital Power said it’s costing more than $500,000 to put in the lights at the company’s New Frontier wind farm in McHenry County.

“It’s a fairly significant capital expenditure,” he said. “We know we have to do it.”

He said the company anticipates it will continue to use light-mitigating technology on projects elsewhere, as more states are following North Dakota’s lead by requiring such technology.

Another option some wind developers are pursuing is to use dimming technology that adjusts the brightness of the lights based on visibility conditions.

Regardless of which option companies use, they must secure approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to install the lighting systems.

Several developers indicated that the availability of the technology is a challenge, as just a few vendors sell it.

“Hopefully that changes as demand grows, as more states and more projects are asking for this,” Kunkle said.