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It is no secret that North Dakota is booming. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the state’s economy is leading the country, and North Dakota has continued to outperform all other states since the economic slowdown in 2008. The population in some areas of the state quadrupled last year, with no end in sight.

Part of the reason for North Dakota’s No. 1 status is the explosion of oil and natural gas development, attracted by the state’s abundance of lignite coal, natural gas and biomass. Another reason: wind.

The Peace Garden State has some of the most highly rated wind for energy generation in the country. There are claims that, with enough wind capacity to produce more than 1 billion kWh of electricity, the state could provide more energy from wind than all the country’s fossil-fuel plants combined.

North Dakota will need this untapped wind potential as its economy continues to attract workers from around the country and the demand for energy increases. Although it may be overshadowed by the tremendous growth in oil and gas development, the development of wind power in North Dakota plays a role in the state’s thriving economy.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) estimates the state has benefited from developers’ investing $3.4 billion in North Dakota’s 33 wind projects and contributing about $5 million annually to make lease payments to local property owners. North Dakota ranks eighth in the nation for wind-related jobs, with an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 workers employed in the operations, maintenance and construction of wind farms, as well as in manufacturing and indirect support services.

There is more wind growth on the horizon. For example, AWEA reports that 94% of wind projects under construction at the end of 2013 were located in the Upper Midwest, the Plains states and Texas, with additional projects planned for this year. North Dakota ranks sixth in the U.S. for the percentage of electricity provided by wind energy. In 2013, wind made up nearly 16% of North Dakota’s energy mix, with nearly 1.7 GW installed. This is double the state’s wind production in 2009, when wind provided about 8% of the state’s energy. However, despite this growth, North Dakota has still only scratched the surface of the state’s wind energy potential.


Xcel Energy, the No. 1 wind energy provider in the country for 10 consecutive years, according to AWEA, is harnessing North Dakota wind and putting it to work for the benefit of the state’s residents. Currently, Xcel is involved in two North Dakota wind projects that are under development:

Both projects are providing wind energy at prices competitive with other forms of electricity generation, such as natural gas.

According to AWEA, the cost of wind energy in the U.S. dropped 43% between 2008 and 2012 due to technological advancements and improvements in other aspects of wind development, such as facility siting and permitting. Today’s large wind farms and individual turbines are strategically placed in locations with proven, reliable wind resources, which improves overall efficiency. Plus, these facilities use taller turbines with lighter and longer blades that are designed to capture and generate the most electricity from available winds. These efficiencies, combined with the extension of the production tax credit at the end of 2012, resulted in the lower prices that will benefit Xcel Energy customers in multiple ways in the future.

Lower-cost wind energy purchased under long-term contracts protects Xcel Energy’s customers from rising fuel and environmental costs that can occur with fossil-fuel generation. The Border Winds project alone is estimated to reduce customer costs by about $45 million over the 20-year purchase agreement.

By improving the predictability of variable generating resources, such as wind energy, Xcel Energy is able to achieve even greater savings for customers. The utility has completed its fourth year of operational deployment of WindWX – one of the most advanced wind-production forecasting systems in the world. The company has worked on this multiyear research and development project with Global Weather Corp. (GWC), an affiliate company of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Since 2009, the forecasting system has helped reduce Xcel Energy’s forecasting error rate by almost 37%, helping save customers an estimated $37.5 million through the end of 2013.

Wind energy production is notoriously difficult to forecast because of the variability of weather. Also, landscape features such as hills and trees can reshape wind speeds and directions, causing turbulence in ways that greatly influence the amount of energy produced by individual turbines. Most forecasting models are designed to generate information about winds near ground level rather than at 200 to 300 feet, where turbine hubs are typically located. The WindWX system uses real-time, turbine-level operating data and applies sophisticated algorithms to forecast the amount of wind power that will be produced. Through ongoing work with GWC, it is now commonplace to have forecasts for 168-hour periods every 15 minutes across Xcel Energy’s entire service territory – including North Dakota.

The forecasts are available worldwide through GWC and will help utilities make better commitment and dispatch decisions, such as spotting and using opportunities to power down less efficient power plants when sufficient winds are forecast to help meet customer electricity needs. The project has been so successful that Xcel Energy, NCAR and GWC are now working on a new phase of the project to further enhance the WindWX technology and improve short-term forecasting.

The most often recognized benefit of wind energy is environmental. Every megawatt-hour of wind energy is emissions-free and saves water. This past spring, the American Lung Association gave North Dakota’s air quality high marks, as it has in the past, but the organization cautioned that economic growth could affect the state’s air. The increased use of wind energy can help North Dakota maintain its air quality, even as the economy continues to grow and attract new residents. AWEA estimates that wind power in North Dakota helps to avoid nearly 3.6 million tons of carbon-dioxide emissions annually.

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced its Clean Power Plan, which aims to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants for the first time. The proposed rule assigns each state an emissions reduction target, and if the rule goes through as proposed, the state of North Dakota will be responsible for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions 11% from 2012 levels. North Dakota’s abundant wind resource could play a role in the state’s compliance plan for the final EPA rule.

As North Dakota continues to grow and the economy thrives, the state is fortunate to have an abundance of diverse energy resources to rely upon. Wind energy plays an important role in the state’s “all of the above” energy strategy and its economic expansion. More wind development will contribute to North Dakota’s overall economic prosperity and will provide the cost-effective energy customers need as part of a cleaner, diverse energy supply that supports the state’s ability to meet future environmental requirements, including the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan. w


Mark Nisbet is principal manager responsible for North Dakota at Xcel Energy. He also is the wind representative for the North Dakota EmPower Commission, an energy consortium that is developing a comprehensive energy policy for the state. Nisbet can be reached at mark.nisbet@xcelenergy.com.

Spotlight: North Dakota

Unlocking North Dakota’s Wind Potential

By Mark Nisbet

Adding more installed capacity in the state will provide many benefits.






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