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ND PSC considers wind farm permit in face of lighting, local workforce issues

BISMARCK — State regulators are working through several issues surrounding a wind farm proposed in Ward and McLean counties, including the lighting system atop the turbines and the facility’s interconnection to the electric grid.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission also is weighing a request from a labor union to require that the wind farm report how many of the workers involved in its construction come from the local area.

Commissioners met Thursday, Oct. 31, to discuss those matters related to the proposed Ruso Wind Project, which could have up to 47 wind turbines for a total capacity of 205 megawatts. A subsidiary of Southern Power is proposing the project.

The regulators indicated they would consider requests from the public on whether to hold a hearing about the lighting and interconnection issues.

The state requires wind farms to install technology to prevent the red lights that sit at the top of wind turbines from blinking all night long so as not to ruin the dark sky for residents nearby.

Ruso Wind had planned to install a radar-based system that would cause the lights to blink only when a plane flies in the vicinity of the wind farm, until the Minot Air Force Base expressed concerns.

Capt. Gordon Blair, chief of safety for the 582nd Helicopter Group, wrote to the PSC in October that such a lighting system poses “multiple safety and tactical threats to helicopter operations in the missile fields.”

Helicopters fly hundreds of missions each year related to the operation of intercontinental ballistic missiles buried in North Dakota. Blair wrote that one of the Air Force’s concerns is that the lights could notify opposition forces of the location of a helicopter flying at night.

“This would severely degrade our capability and jeopardize mission accomplishment,” he said.

Zachary Pelham, an attorney who works with the PSC, said the Federal Aviation Administration is tasked with approving the wind farm’s lighting system and will not sign off on it if the military objects.

Ruso Wind is looking into a different type of lighting technology that dims the lights based on visibility conditions, but such a system has yet to be approved by the FAA, according to a letter from a consultant working with Southern Power.

The PSC already held a hearing to get the public’s input on the wind farm in June, but at the time the plan was to use the lighting system that turns on in the presence of an aircraft.

Commissioner Randy Christmann wondered whether any of the wind farm’s other approvals from the counties or townships were based on the assumption that the facility would have light mitigating technology.

“I think (that is) a concern we had a hearing, and people have certain presumptions,” he said. “For a couple years, we’ve made pretty clear we were requiring all wind farms to have that once it’s approved.”

Ruso Wind is also in a tough position with regard to obtaining permission to connect to the electric grid. When a wind farm or power plant is proposed, it must undergo an engineering study with the grid operator to determine what, if any, upgrades are needed to bring the facility online.

The company sought to obtain an approval from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which is one of two entities that run the power grid in North Dakota. But after the PSC hearing in June, the grid operator determined that upgrades associated with Ruso Wind would cost $500 million, and the company withdrew its interconnection request. In a document filed with the PSC in August, Ruso Wind said it is now considering interconnecting with the other grid operator known as the Southwest Power Pool.

Push to hire local

Commissioners on Thursday also considered a request from the Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota, which wants the PSC to require that Ruso Wind report back the number of local and non-local workers involved in construction of the wind farm.

In attendance were representatives from the laborers union, which has been pushing this issue both in North Dakota and Minnesota due to the prevalence of many out-of-state workers at wind farm construction sites. The union is an intervenor in Ruso Wind’s case to obtain approvals for the project from the PSC.

With the laborers union were members of the Ironworkers Local 512, which is based in Bismarck. Kaelen Harrington, a journeyman union ironworker, said the disparity between in-state and out-of-state workers is apparent in the parking lots of project sites.

“It’s nothing but license plates from Texas, Utah, Arizona,” he said. “It’s a shame when you’ve got plenty of people available to do the work. They’re going to take their paychecks back home, and we’re going to spend ours here and put our kids through college here.”

The laborers union released a report earlier this month looking at the workforce hiring issue in North Dakota. It estimates that just 14% of construction jobs on recent wind projects in the state came from North Dakota-based workers.

Lucas Franco, research manager for the union, said in a recent interview that wind developers with projects in the Midwest did not always rely on out-of-state workers. But as the wind industry has grown nationally, companies have grown accustomed to using traveling workers.

Wages in some parts of the country are lower, meaning companies can pay construction workers from those markets less money to work in North Dakota, Franco said.

The laborers union estimates that hiring a local workforce can have a significant impact on local economies. A local construction worker will spend three times more in-state than a non-local worker, who might spend their per diem allowance on meals and lodging but either save the rest of their wages or spend them in their home states, according to the report.

The union has pushed, successfully, to address similar workforce issues in Minnesota. This year, the Public Utility Commission there starting requiring that all wind projects disclose the number of local and non-local construction workers.

“That helped to reveal that a lot of developers and builders were dropping the ball and not using local workers,” Franco said. “By having transparency, it’s led to a greater collective effort to try to get companies to hire local.”

Ruso Wind says the wind farm will create 200 construction jobs and result in at least eight permanent jobs. In a document filed with the PSC in September, it said the project “will provide numerous economic benefits,” including tax revenue, increased income to landowners through lease payments and revenue to local businesses where workers spend money.

The company has not said whether it plans to hire in-state or out-of-state workers, but that it believes its main contractor “is in the best position to determine who to hire to fulfill a project’s needs.”