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Dean Hulse, Published February 13 2010

North Dakota ‘power of coal’ hinders clean energy sector

A report released in early February shows that North Dakota could benefit significantly from a vibrant renewable energy sector. The report is the work of the RES Alliance for Jobs, a coalition of businesses and organizations that support congressional enactment of a strong federal Renewable Electricity Standard.

Specifically, if the nation were to adopt the goal of having 25 percent of its electricity coming from renewable resources by the year 2025, North Dakota could see an increase of 4,000 to 5,000 jobs in the wind industry alone. Many of those jobs would be in construction and manufacturing, historically high-paying sectors.

However, even though North Dakota has the nation’s greatest wind resource, other states such as Texas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania would enjoy greater job growth, according to the report. What’s astounding is that Ohio and Pennsylvania don’t even rank among the top 20 states for wind energy potential.

How can this be? One answer is North Dakota’s status quo, which requires politicians to support the lignite coal industry (“the power of coal”) at all costs. Clearly, the cost of maintaining the status quo is increasing. While Texas is No. 2 in wind energy potential, behind North Dakota, the Lone Star state is No. 1 in wind energy development – far and away – followed by Iowa, California, Washington and Minnesota. (Washington doesn’t rank among the top 20 states in terms of wind energy potential, either.)

The good news is that North Dakota has finally made the top 10 list for wind energy development, with 1,203 megawatts of installed capacity at the close of 2009. However, that’s small consolation considering the state’s enormous wind energy potential. Case in point: the American Wind Energy Association reports that Texas added nearly 2,300 MW of installed capacity in 2009 alone.

Of course, transmission line capacity is one reason why North Dakota hasn’t yet matched its wind energy potential with on-the-ground development. However, federal legislation may soon provide opportunities for addressing the transmission problem, presuming North Dakota politicians have the will to take advantage of the situation.

Community-owned renewable energy development represents the state’s last, best chance to chart its own course, rather than being taken for another ride. It’s an election year. It’s time to starting asking our politicians some hard questions about the prospects for North Dakota’s wind energy industry.

Hulse is an author and environmental activist.