BISMARCK-North Dakota utility regulators recently approved one company's plans for removing wind turbines and restoring the land, a step that aims to protect the landscape for future generations.
Under new Public Service Commission rules, wind companies are required to submit plans and cost estimates for reclaiming wind projects when the turbines reach the end of their useful lives.
Commissioners have approved plans for 14 NextEra Energy wind projects, the first ones submitted under the new requirements.
"I think it's safe to say it would be decades for a number of them before decommissioning would actually occur," Commissioner Brian Kroshus said during a June 27 meeting. "We just want to make sure at the end of the day that we're taking good care of the environment when any type of energy production facility goes offline and is no longer in use."
On average, NextEra said it would cost about $125,000 per wind turbine to restore the land for its North Dakota projects, according to third-party engineering estimates submitted to regulators.
For example, decommissioning the 48 turbines in the Oliver Wind III project in Morton and Oliver counties is estimated to cost $6.24 million. That includes the cost of dismantling the towers, removing concrete pedestals to a depth of at least 3 feet, reclaiming access roads and removing underground cables.
"Our commitment is to leave the land in as good or better condition than we found it," said Bryan Garner, a spokesman for NextEra.
The regulations also require companies to submit financial assurances that they're able to pay for the cost of decommissioning. That requirement will protect landowners and the state in the event that a wind farm changes ownership or a company goes bankrupt, said Public Service Commission Chairman Randy Christmann.
Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck attorney who represents landowners, said he's impressed with the forward-looking rules from the commission.
However, he urges landowners to be cautious and consider requesting additional bonding in agreements with wind companies. Braaten said, in his experience, the bonding amount required for energy facilities is rarely sufficient to fully restore the land.
Cost estimates submitted by wind companies so far have varied.
Plans from Montana-Dakota Utilities estimate it would cost from $260,000 to $275,000 per turbine to decommission the Cedar Hills facility in Bowman County and the Thunder Spirit Wind Project in Adams County.
Meanwhile, a cost estimate submitted by Minnesota Power for the Bison Wind Energy Center in Morton and Oliver counties averaged about $27,000 per turbine.
Those decommissioning plans have not yet been approved by regulators or reviewed by staff. The companies are required to submit cost estimates from qualified engineers licensed in North Dakota.
Wind companies had a July 1 deadline to submit decommissioning plans. As of last week, the commission was still waiting on plans for about a dozen wind facilities, said Jerry Lein, staff engineer.
There are a lot of unknowns about what happens when a wind project reaches the end of its useful life, according to Braaten.
"We're so much on the front end of the wind development. It's like the beginning of an oil boom," he said. "There's just a lot of question marks."
NextEra estimates that a typical wind farm has a lifespan of 30 years, but technology improvements can extend that, Garner said.
Peder Mewis, regional policy manager for Wind on the Wires, a wind energy advocacy organization, said, in some cases, wind projects may be fully removed, but he expects more often the facilities will be repowered or retooled with new technology.
NextEra is planning to repower the Langdon wind facility in Cavalier County, with upgrades for other North Dakota projects in discussion, Garner said.
Christmann, who compares the new wind regulations to standards adopted decades ago for coal reclamation, said the wind rules will continue to evolve.
Also in the regulations, wind companies are required to submit an annual report. If the projects don't meet a minimum level of output, the wind farm could be determined to be no longer useful.
"You can't have these wind farms out there become abandoned but maybe just switched on for an hour or two a year just to say they're still used," Christmann said.
The agency had decommissioning rules previously, but the new rules adopted at the direction of North Dakota legislators strengthened the requirements. The standards are slightly different for existing projects than those approved after July 2017.
For new wind projects, companies will be required to submit decommissioning plans at the same time that they apply for a siting permit.
The rules protect landowners while also providing certainty for industry, Kroshus said.
"Developers have been very cooperative. They want to do things right. They just wanted a clear sense of direction," Kroshus said.