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Energy leaders advocate for wind

Beulah Beacon

"If we just say no to wind, does that help save coal? No, those investments will just be made somewhere else."

This was the heart of a message Robert Harms, together with Tammy Ibach, presented to the Mercer County Commission last Wednesday. Harms and Ibach work with North Dakotans for Comprehensive Energy Solutions (NDCES), an organization that advocates for all types of energy development.

Ibach presented information to the commissioners that she and Harms elaborated on in their discussion. These included the struggles coal companies have faced in the state and around the nation, as well as the surge in new energy development, not only in wind, but also notably in natural gas.

"I don't want Mercer County to have regrets five years from now," Ibach said, saying there needed to be a collaborative approach towards finding solutions.

Harms described his history in energy issues and energy policy, including working with former North Dakota Governors Ed Schafer and John Ho-even. This included playing a key role during the height of the energy boom in the first half of the last decade.

"Coal: It's been a good story for us," Harms said. "[The coal country area] has some of the best paying jobs in the state."

Harms addressed several points related to various energy producers. He agreed that subsidies for wind and renewable energy was a real issue, but pointed out this is the result of federal policy, which no one in Mercer County could do anything about.

"That's a D.C. problem, not a Stanton or Bismarck one," he said.

Harms pointed out the biggest threat to coal in the United States as a whole is the increase of natural gas development rather than wind, saying the Bakken natural gas production now represents about 15-16,000 megawatts of electricity alone.

Harms said he was concerned the county's current moratorium on wind energy development would hurt the county and its residents in the long run. According to the information he and Ibach provided, the moratorium would cost Mercer County $250-300 in investments, with landowners losing $25-30 million and the county missing out on the property tax revenues that could be generated. They also said McLean County has lost $1.6 billion in its investments due to its stance on wind production.

"Contrary to statements by public officials, landowners will be harmed by these local decisions costing them millions of lease payments for their private property," the NDCES packet said.

Harms stressed the impact of low-cost natural gas and efficient gas plants as the primary reason for the decline in coal, citing a 2017 study from the Department of Energy. As for wind, he urged the county to take advantage of an opportunity that was knocking on its door.

"Those investments will still be made, but in Nebraska or Iowa or somewhere else," Harms said of wind companies' decisions if the moratorium is kept. "Our coal plants would still have to compete with them."

Harms and Ibach also stressed that they wanted to see the coal plants in the area survive and thrive, and were hoping a more collaborative approach to energy development could boost coal as well as new energy options.

"What is the answer to helping the coal industry?" Harms asked. "We don't know what all the right answers are." He said getting incentives from the state and federal level and creating a partnership with like-minded coal-producing states might be some of the options.

"Contrary to what some people in Mercer and McLean say, we don't want coal to go away," Ibach said. "We need to work collaboratively."

Harms pointed out the frustration Governor Ho-even had during the boom when the different industries would each claim that it was the best source of energy, saying the real developments in North Dakota's energy history have come when different producers put aside their respective interests and come together to create a North Dakota energy system.

Art Ziemann, one of the main people whose property in Mercer County stands to gain from Capital Power's Garrison Butte Wind project, also spoke to the commission, thanking Ibach and Harms for their information.

Ziemann also addressed some of the questions the commissioners had asked of him when he last spoke to them about the Garrision Butte project. He said Capital Power was comfortable with having the agreements related to potential buyers worked into the conditional use permit, and that the company hopes to meet commercial operation for the project by the end of 2022.

Finally, Ziemann said the forecast of $15 million for Mercer County would be generated through property taxes over the life of the project. About $23 million would be generated in total, with $15 of that going to the county.

Ziemann stressed the need for Mercer County to get involved in this up-and-coming industry, with those projects coming somewhere or other in the near future.

"Gentlemen, we have a reputable company that still wants to do business in Mercer County," he said.

Ziemann asked the commission to consider granting an exception for Capital Power to their current moratorium, due to the very tight timetable for the company to proceed with its local project. He said the commission "still has the hammer" and could stop the project at any time.

"It shows some good faith from the county, as time is still of the essence," Ziemann said.

Commission Chairman Marv Schwehr asked if Ziemann could present this request as formal written proposal. No action was taken on it during the Oct. 7 meeting.


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