Jul 23 2016

Wind Energy Proposal and Coal Backlash in North Dakota

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Glacier Ridge Wind Farm LLC, a wind energy company based in Colorado and operating in the Midwest, has recently announced plans to pursue a 300 MW wind farm development in Barnes County, North Dakota. The state has a vast wind energy resource, and is a leader in the United States in harnessing it. However, this potential project is the largest wind farm ever proposed in the state, and must receive a permit from the state Public Service Commission. Discussion among the commissioners on the PSC has focused on renewable energy’s impact on coal power plants and grid reliability. This blog post will examine the wind energy resource in North Dakota, and then tackle the problem of balancing grid stability concerns with progressing towards a renewable-dominated energy future.


Copyright 2009 Land Agent Services LLC

The state of North Dakota has enough wind capacity to generate more than 1 billion kWh of electricity. By 2013, the state had 1.7 GW of wind energy installed, producing 16% of its energy needs. The reason behind North Dakota’s vast wind resource is its location in the wind-swept Great Plains. The flat geography there allows winds to pick up speed uninhibited by hills or forests or other topography. This means that the average wind speed at 80 meters makes wind-generated electricity economically feasible in a majority of the state’s area. The US DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory produced the following map of the wind resource in North Dakota at 80 meters. For reference, wind speeds around 6.5 meters per second and greater are considered suitable for development.

Copyright 2010 NREL

                As you can see, except for a couple of brown spots on the northern, eastern, and western borders, anywhere in the state could be a potential site for wind development. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense for wind energy projects to continue to be proposed in North Dakota. However, the intermittent nature of wind brings up questions of how large a percentage of the state’s energy needs can be met by wind while still keeping the grid stable.

The new proposal by Glacier Ridge would consist of 87 to 99 turbines that would begin operation in 2019. Construction must begin by the end of 2016 for the project to receive the full tax break from the state, but several commissioners on the PSC are hesitant to permit the project. Commissioner Brian Kalk said that “as we bring in more wind and as companies continue to retire coal and potentially nuclear, the reliability of the power grid, I think, is threatened.” The grid requires power running through it at all times. Hypothetically, if the grid in southeastern North Dakota relies on this new 300 MW farm for 30% of its electricity, and there is a day where the wind does not blow at all, then the grid could see rolling blackouts for its customers.

Copyright 2016 Todd Wadena

Recently, Great River Energy Company announced plans to close its 189 MW Stanton coal plant in 2017 due to low energy prices in the region. This follows a trend of coal-fired power plants closing operation as renewable energy seizes larger chunks of the energy market. Wind energy growth may slow down for the time being due to the aforementioned concerns about the grid. There are a couple of solutions that will hopefully allow Glacier Ridge and other wind energy companies to continue to build new developments.

  1. Wind Production Forecasting Systems – Xcel Energy, a wind energy company located in North Dakota, has pioneered an advanced forecasting model that accurately predicts future wind speeds. The model is called WindWX, and has helped reduce Xcel Energy’s forecasting error by 37%, which has saved customers $37.5 million through 2013. The forecasts use complex algorithms and real-time data to give 168-hour predictions. These predictions can then be used by grid operators and utility companies to power down less efficient power generators (i.e. coal plants) on windy days or ramp up these generators on calmer days. This greatly increases the efficiency of the grid and allows wind energy to be more reliable.
  2. Storage – This is the obvious solution for all renewable energy technologies. If energy storage became more efficient, we could rely on renewable energy to meet more of our energy needs. As it stands, storage is too expensive and inefficient to be economically feasible. However, research and progress is being made daily, and will become viable in the not-so-distant future.
  3. Grid Reform – Our grids are wildly outdated and unable to handle a renewable energy future. Transmission inefficiencies and constant power demands are a couple of the main problems. We must transition to smart grids in the future as well as micro-grids to allow renewable energy technologies to flourish.


Walton, R., 21 July 2016, 300 MW Wind Farm Proposed for North Dakota, Largest in State, UtilityDive, http://www.utilitydive.com/news/300-mw-wind-farm-proposed-for-north-dakota-largest-in-the-state/423078/

Nisbet, M., 2014, Unlocking North Dakota’s Wind Potential, North American Wind Power, http://www.nawindpower.com/online/issues/NAW1408/FEAT_01_Unlocking-North-Dakota-s-Wind-Potential.html

U.S. Department of Energy, 2010, 80-Meter North Dakota Wind Resource Map, WINDExchange, http://apps2.eere.energy.gov/wind/windexchange/wind_resource_maps.asp?stateab=nd



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