GRAND FORKS — North Dakota is nationally known for its oil and gas production, which are both at all-time highs. The state is also abundant in renewable energy resources, contributing more than $170 million in economic activity to the state, according to a North Dakota State University study.
Renewable energy pays more than $7.7 million in property taxes in North Dakota, the study found.
Minnesota doesn’t produce fossil fuels, but has significant renewable energy resources. Renewable generation supplied about a quarter of Minnesota’s electricity in 2017.
North Dakota experiences nearly continuous winds, making it a sustainable source for wind energy. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that average wind speeds in the state range from 10 to 13 mph.
The North Dakota Public Service Commission is looking at approving the state’s first commercial-scale solar farm near Casselton. Harmony Solar has proposed the 200-megawatt project that, if approved, will cost $320 million and be completed in the next two years. Neighboring Minnesota has solar capacity of more than 700 megawatts, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
“North Dakota is at the crossroads of energy,” said Jeff Deyette. “It is rich in fossil energy resources, but also rich in renewable energy resources.”
Deyette is the director of state policy and analysis for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of scientists that researches sustainability.
Coal is also still a heavy contributor to the state’s electricity generation, Deyette said. A quarter of the state’s energy comes from wind, and more than 60 percent comes from coal.
Five percent of the state’s energy comes from conventional hydropower, according to the EIA.
The Garrison Dam on the Missouri River is the only source of hydropower in North Dakota. Operating since 1955, it generates approximately 583 megawatts of energy.
“North Dakota is an interesting juxtaposition of where we hope to be heading: toward cleaner energy transition,” Deyette said.
Wind is by far the largest renewable in North Dakota, said Public Service Commissioner Randy Christmann. The PSC regulates public utilities.
North Dakota ranks fifth in the nation for its share of electricity generated from wind energy, according to the EIA.
Minnesota is also in the top 10 states for electricity generated from wind energy.
Wind power provides almost 20 percent of Minnesota’s total net energy generation, the EIA reported. Minnesota has many wind farms, totaling 3,699 megawatts of installed wind capacity.
Minnesota has invested more than $7 billion in wind energy, according to the American Wind Energy Association. North Dakota has invested $5.8 billion in the wind industry.
Since May 2016, Christmann said, North Dakota has added over 1,000 megawatts of wind power. That brought the total megawatts of wind power in North Dakota to 3,000.
In the next year, 400 megawatts, which are currently under construction, will be completed.
Brian Kroshus, another public service commissioner, said wind power is growing in North Dakota for four reasons.
Abundant wind resources, subsidies for utility companies, renewable portfolio standards and social pressure to use “green energy” all contribute to the continued growth of renewable energy.
“Younger demographics lean more towards renewables, and some companies like Amazon want to use renewables so that they can present that to their customer base,” Kroshus said.
Similar to the huge economic benefits to the state from the oil and gas boom, the abundance of wind resources in North Dakota also brings jobs and economic benefits.
“Wind brings in a lot of tax revenue to local areas,” Christmann said.
Wind farms also bring revenue to landowners with towers on their property, and the environmental benefits are substantial.
The American Wind Energy Association said generating wind power creates no emissions and uses very little water. The association estimates that in 2017, 5.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions were kept out of the atmosphere because of wind power.
There are also negative impacts of wind, Christmann said.
“There are people who live nearby and don’t benefit,” he said. “They have to look at these huge turbines all day. They never have a dark night sky anymore because of the red flashing light on top of the turbine.”
Kroshus said the commission often hears from adjacent landowners, and their concern has been growing.
“When the first wind farms were placed in the state, they were viewed as a novelty, there were a lot of questions and curiosity surrounding them,” Kroshus said. “But … more and more of the North Dakota landscape is occupied by wind farms.”
Kroshus said the commission hears more people expressing concerns about interrupted landscapes and flickering lights for those living in the shadow of wind turbines.
“Some people are concerned it is getting to be too much,” Kroshus said.
Replacing fossil fuels
Many worry that renewable energy is not a reliable source of energy.
But that is 20th century thinking, said Deyette.
“There have been great advances in technology, and renewable energy is more reliable and sustainable than ever,” Deyette said. “There’s not a lot of substance behind those concerns about the ability of renewable energy to provide power.”
While the wind does not blow all the time, Deyette said, the renewable energy industry has made huge strides in finding ways to store energy.
Renewable energy also is often paired with natural gas energy, which can act as a backup for wind or solar.
A lot of coal-generated electricity is coming off line across the country, Deyette said, and being replaced by natural gas plants.
In this region, Otter Tail Power Company had a coal plant near Fergus Falls, Minn., which was recently replaced with wind and natural gas in North Dakota. Near Bismarck, Montana-Dakota Utilities replaced its coal-fired Heskett station with a natural-gas-fired plant, which was completed in 2015.
Renewable energies, such as wind, solar and natural gas, are becoming a more popular solution to powering American life. Oil will be replaced by natural gas as the No. 1 fuel source by 2024, Kroshus said. And renewable energy will continue to rise along the way.