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Minnesota wind farm drama may be entering final act

Two fronts have collided before Minnesota utility regulators, and now, observers on both sides are waiting to see which way the wind will blow in what’s been the state’s highest-profile and hardest-fought battle over wind turbine placement.

The proposed $179 million, 78-megawatt Goodhue Wind project would consist of 50 turbines spanning about 32,000 acres of farm land an hour drive southeast of the Twin Cities. The developer is a subsidiary of Mesa Power Group, which is owned by Texas oil-and-gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens.

Live Webcast 6/30

In partnership with The UpTake, Thursday’s hearing will be webcast live on Midwest Energy News, starting at 9:30 a.m. Check the Highwire blog for updates.

Last October, about a year after the developer applied for site permits, Goodhue County adopted a setback ordinance that bans wind turbines within 10 rotor diameters, or about half a mile in this case, of any non-participating neighboring home. That’s in stark contrast with state law in Minnesota, which generally requires setbacks between 750 and 1,500 feet based on noise and other factors.

The local ordinance grew out of grassroots opposition from a group of county residents who fear the turbines will upset their quality of life. The developer, which has partnered with about 200 other local property owners, says the project can’t go through under the local setback rules.

Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission is likely to give its final say on the matter Thursday after months of testimony and discussion. Its decision will be the first major test of a 2007 amendment that gave counties limited authority to adopt more stringent wind setbacks than those spelled out in state law.

Thursday’s hearing will be webcast live on Midwest Energy News, starting at 9:30 a.m.

“It’s certainly something every wind developer is paying close attention to, because one way or another it affects how they’re going to propose their next project,” said Sarah Johnson Phillips, a renewable energy attorney with Stoel Rives in Minneapolis.

What the law says

Under the 1995 Minnesota Wind Siting Act, state regulators have permitting authority over large-scale wind energy developments, defined as any with 5 megawatts capacity or more. Local governments can set rules for any projects smaller than 5 megawatts.

In 2007, the same legislation that created the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard also amended the state’s wind siting act. It gave county boards an option to assume responsibility for wind applications and permits for projects less than 25 megawatts, assuming they follow certain guidelines from the utilities commission. Six counties have since chosen to take on that role, including Stearns, Lyon and Freeborn.

A county may adopt large-wind ordinances that are more stringent than state standards, the amendment says, and the utilities commission “shall consider and apply those more stringent standards unless the commission finds good cause to not apply the standards.”

Goodhue County is not among the six counties that has assumed administrative and decision-making responsibility for those wind projects up to 25 megawatts, which is one of the reasons an administrative law judge in April ruled that the amendment doesn’t apply in the case and that the utilities commission has no obligation to consider the county’s setback ordinance.

“This is a test of how far the public utilities commission is willing to go to follow a county ordinance that doesn’t necessarily apply to the project in question,” Johnson Phillips said.

‘It definitely won’t be the same’

Red Wing attorney Carol Overland said for her clients, Bruce and Marie McNamara, a way of life is at stake. “What’s at stake for them is whether they’ll be able to continue to live and work on their farm, whether they can stay on their farm,” Overland said.

The McNamaras own a small organic dairy farm within the proposed wind development. The nearest turbine would be on a neighbor’s property about half a mile from their home, according to the administrative law judge’s report. The McNamaras formed Goodhue Wind Truth to oppose the project and promote their concerns through flyers, newspaper ads and billboards.

The group and its allies have raised a number of complaints. They allege noise, shadows and transmission lines related to the project will lead to lost sleep, sick cattle, dead birds, spoiled views, and depressed home values. They’ve questioned the financial fairness and whether enough of the profits will stay in the community. And they’ve criticized the effectiveness of wind power in general. “It’s not reliable,” said Bruce McNamara. “You don’t know when the wind is going to be blowing.”

McNamara said he is most concerned about the potential health impacts he believes will accompany the turbines, ticking off a list of conditions that include tinnitus, heart palpitations and sleep deprivation. He said he knows this from reading about and talking to people who have lived near turbines in other parts of the world. However, there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that turbines have any adverse health effects on humans.

“It definitely won’t be the same as it was before,” McNamara said.

Wind industry watching

On that last point, Lisa Daniels, founder and executive director of Windustry will agree.

“There is an impact. There is development where there was not development. It changes things,” Daniels said. “But is it in the public interest? Is it for the greater good?”

In this case, the Goodhue Wind development will generate enough clean electricity to provide power to about 23,000 households. That will help the state get closer to its goal of generating 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

The wind farm would also generate about $6 million local tax revenue over its first two decades, during which it would also pay out about $20 million in land leases and turbine payments to local property owners, about 200 of whom have signed agreements. The developer would employ between 100 and 150 people during construction, and about five employees after that. At least 51 percent of the development’s total revenue would go to Minnesota residents.

Daniels said it’s critical for Minnesota to keep making progress on its renewable energy goals. When it comes to wind, much of the “low-hanging fruit” — sparsely populated agricultural land located near transmission lines — has already been developed. That’s pushing wind developers into more populated areas, which is generating conflicts like the one in Goodhue County, she said.

“It could happen to any wind developer, so every wind developer is watching,” Daniels said. What they’re looking for is potential lessons that might help them better sell the community benefits of wind power. Developers are already approaching site permitting more broadly. “It’s not just wildlife and environmental issues. It’s the community aspects, the people aspects.”

Up next: PUC decision

The developer, AWA Goodhue, declined an interview, but in public filings and testimony it’s made it clear that the project cannot go through under the county’s proposed setback, which would strike 43 of its 50 planned sites. Installing fewer, larger turbines wouldn’t be possible because the county setbacks are based on the size of turbine, and with smaller turbines it could only generate 36 megawatts. Acquiring enough additional land would also be too costly, it said.

The public utilities commission first heard testimony on the Goodhue project in October. Instead of making a decision then, it referred the case to an administrative law judge to settle some of the legal and factual questions around the new county ordinance. Judge Kathleen Sheehy was highly dismissive of the county and opponents claims in her final report (PDF), which was issued April 29.

Sheehy was critical of the lack of evidence to support health and safety claims by project opponents. She noted that three of the most vocal opponents, McNamara and the Coalition for Sensible Siting directors Steve Groth and Ann Buck, live half a mile or more from the nearest proposed turbine. And she said their legal interpretation that the utilities commission must consider any local ordinance “makes no practical sense.”

Overland, the attorney for Goodhue Wind Truth, said the judge “overreached” in her report and that she remains optimistic that the commission will decide in favor of the local setback rules.

Johnson Phillips, who has written about the case on Stoel Rives’ Renewable + Law blog, said that while the utility commission decision should lend some clarity, it’s doubtful that it’s the end of the discussion about state-versus-local wind siting. She said she expects the debate will continue in the Legislature and possibly at the commission.

“The decision itself will be very important to the fate of this particular project, but for the wind industry in Minnesota, I think this is just a focusing event to figure out what the next step is going to be in the conversation about how this process could be improved.”

Dan Haugen is a Minneapolis freelance journalist who writes about business, technology and environmental issues. Contact him at dan@danhaugen.com.

Photo by Mulad via Creative Commons

12 thoughts on “Minnesota wind farm drama may be entering final act

  1. You actually need a mile from those turbines to escape the noise.
    And the article talked about payments to the state and residents from the wind farm. It didn’t talk about bigger payments to the wind farm from taxpayers. Without those, the wind project would be as quiet as the turbine blades on a hot muggy summer day when all ACs are running.

  2. People need to wake up, wind has not or will ever shut down a nuke plant or any other, wind is being pushed for the tax incentives for production and nothing more, if you look at federal guidelines for wind siting it clearly states, 1800 feet from property lines of, with the will for counties to adopt even farther setbacks, pickens is getting rich from our tax dollars and the government is being swindled at the cost of the land, hydro electric is the better choice, hydrogen and geothermal are what will change our carbon footprint for the future. See us on facebook (say no to wind farms) look at the facts, listen to the people, research it your self all over the world

  3. As a resident of Goodhue Cty & the Twnsp in Question. Having attended every Subcommittee Mtg. but 1. I have done due diligence in study and have attended all mtgs in the county and state levels. I have made comment to all committees so I am a participant on the subject. #1. 179 Million? T.Boone Pickens contracted to purchase 600 turbines from G.E several years ago. His poor investment should not be ours.He did not put them up on his beautiful ranch but instead contracted his neighbors. The turbines did not get installed but T.Boone still reaped the water rights that were included in the wind contracts. He is now here in MN. were water is a valuable commodity overlooked by residents. T.Boone & others are selling MN. water rights!!! Renewable energy? No way. Wind is responsible for the increases you see in your energy bill now. Infrastructure such as CAPX: No energy is coming to MN. All about cuting through the state & sending Dakota energy east. MN pays for power lines however!.MN renewable energy mandates exempt wind developers from MN law. Local control has been HI-Jacked. You are not aware till several permits are already in developer hands. Wind development subsidies benefit non-resident developers and leave communities hostage to powerplants that do not produce or cut CO2 emmissions. Often times as in Spain Mob connections launder illegal funds through poorly regulated wind developments.The same connections are showing up in MN Wind Developments.Since selling GREEN is politically correct, seldom is a politician seen voicing opposition. PUC Chair Ellen Anderson participated in writting the 2007 renewable energy initative. She will hardly be an impartial vote for Goodhue County! The deck is stacked!!!

  4. Wayne – did you see our story on hydropower last week? There’s potential out there, but outside the Pacific NW, only enough to meet a small percentage of energy needs.

    Also, there are no federal laws or regulations governing wind turbine siting on private property.

  5. And Mama Bear – it simply isn’t true that wind power is driving up utility rates.

    I appreciate everyone’s interest and passion about the issue, but let’s try to maintain a rational, fact-based conversation here.

  6. Ken, Wind Power(Lack there of) is driving up Electric rates. Front end subsidies like the 1603 cash grant (slush fund) to developers who hold contracts such as in the case of AWA Goohue that entitles them to “everythin over, under & on the ground contracted” for 20Plus years & then turns around & gives the project to investers for a price when turbines are needing repair or replacement. Hundreds of miles of power lines that MN rate payers pay for to ship energy to eastern parts un-known at Mn. cost.The end result is higher utility costst to hostage ratepayers for intermittentd & sometimes non-existant wind energy. My Goodhue County REA has a place to opt into wind energy but noplace to opt out! MN has met its 25×25 renewable energy by investing in Canadian Hydro.

  7. MN has met its 25×25 renewable energy by investing in Canadian Hydro.
    False. I think you’re misinterpreting this PUC decision.
    As for power lines, I’m assuming you’re referring to CapX 2020. While it’s true that ratepayers will pick up much of the cost, it’s not true that the lines are being built solely to accommodate wind generation – in fact, much of that project was intended to move power from the since-withdrawn Big Stone II coal plant.
    I try to maintain an open discussion thread, but once again, this is not the place for unsubstantiated nonsense.
    While it’s true that wind power can impact utility rates, so can any other generation source. The issue is vastly more complex than you’re making it out to be.

  8. What is on the line in the decision to apply Goodhue County’s setbacks in the permitting of AWA Goodhue’s wind project? The future of the planet? Not likely. The future of wind development in Goodhue County? Maybe, but only if you assume that wind can only be developed by large industrial corporations who sign a minimal amount of land and bully their way through the permitting process. The future of AWA Goodhue? Possibly but only their timeline and project layout are definitely affected. They can proceed by signing more land and participants and negotiating with the people who live inside ten rotor diameters of their turbines.
    The ten-rotor setback insures that wind development will be in areas where the majority of affected are signed participants. It doesn’t prevent all industrial wind energy development. It reduces the shadow flicker on non-participants to almost zero. It insures lower noise levels for non-participant, it doesn’t insure that turbine noise will not exceed present background levels.
    Does it affect you as an landowner? It certainly reduces the number of sites where you can site turbines on your land without the consent of your neighbors. Would you really want to inflict problems on your neighbors without their consent? Their consent might offer you protection from legal actions. If you and you neighbor don’t get along now, doing a turbine on your land closer to their house than the house where you live is not likely to improve relations. Conversely, if your neighbor were to become a paid participant you may become the best of friends.
    So what is really at stake? Not wind development so much as who benefits. Will the people who have lived here for generations benefit or pay the price for wind development? Where is the proof that 1500 foot setbacks that AWA Goodhue offered to non-participants will protect property value and our health ? Do research don’t take my word for it and never sign a wind lease without consulting a lawyer that specializes in wind development and talk to your neighbors.
    Rick Conrad

  9. Ken Paulson: You seem to know a lot about “wind energy” so I hope you can tell me about the effects of the ground vibrations from LWECS on frogs, toads, and other ground/water dwellers impacted by turbines. Frogs are incredibly sensitive to changes in their habitat but there doesn’t seem to be any information available on what will happen if there are not appropriate setbacks for LWECS in wetland areas. It is my understanding that this project has several types of wetlands. USFWS says no information is available on this topic because it has not been studied re:wind turbines. Thanks.

  10. At the end of 20 years the local financial benefit will be 1/2 or less than the $50 million up front federal 1603 cash grant that will go to T. Boone. Comrad Daniels – “The greater good”? Really? I realize you’re earning a full time salary on the wind song and dance routine, but I fail to see how this benefits me or the rest of society. Ms. Phillips, ‘the Commission shall consider and apply more strict county ordinance…” regardless whether the county took on permitting 5-25MW. The MUPC already decided that and put their decision in writing in 2010. The fact the ALJ Sheehy grossly overstepped her charge and contradicted what the MPUC already does is interesting. The MPUC has already applied at least 7 more strict County ordinances. Not all of these Counties took on 5-25. Mama Bear is correct about hydro in the sense that, if the MN law was not so contorted to mandate wind energy, we would count all the hydro electricity we already use (not just “small” hydro). If MN counted all hydro, MN already meets the 25X25 goal. Mission accomplished without abusing tax and rate payers. If you want to see how wonderful wind is – take a look at the recent complaints from people living in the Bent Tree and Elk Creek II projects. And for you smart informed folks, which of you can explain why the Nobles wind project is currently shut down? Reading between the lines, they have major electrical problems and no clear idea what the source of their problem is. Doesn’t that just boost your confidence? An industrial electrical power plant with major electrical failures that can’t be explained 4 1/2 months after the problems began. If I live in a wind project I can look forward to loss of phone service (Lake Benton II); loss of TV reception and radio signal (Bent Tree), likely loss of ARMER reception, sleeplessness and headache (MN Deparment of Health – Public Health Impacts of Wind Turbines 2009), shadow flicker, loss of aerial crop spraying, loss or curtailment of medical helicopter rescue, exploding transformers and current leakages (Grand Meadow), declining health (Bernie Hagen- Mower County)…all with my tax and rate money. The fact MN exempts wind from laws regulating electrical generators and exempts wind from laws regulating agricultural land use in order to speed developers towards the federal cash cow (1603) is disgusting. I don’t think feeding at the public trough, producing NOTHING of value while simultaniously ruining the lives of people living in the area is a benefit.

  11. The 2007 renewable energy mandate is about to allow a large documented Bald Eagle population to be destroyed. The bill specifically eliminated environmental rules on wind generation. The eagles are being sacrificed so that Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens can collect a 50 million dollar federal grant for his wind turbines.

    Bill Grant head of the Office of Energy Security at Dept of Commerce was one or the designers and writers of the 2007 Renewable Energy Standards in his role as head of the Izaak Walton League. In a conversation on 4/22/2011 Mr. Grant said that the reason Wind Energy is exempt from MN laws governing electrical generators is speed – to collect as much federal money as quickly as possible. Mr. Grant stated speed for federal money is also the reason wind is exempt from MN laws regulating the use of agricultural land. Transcripts and recordings of conversation are available

    On April 27, 2011 residents of SE MN guided Rich Davis of the USFWS around the project area. In 2 1/2 hours they observed six active nesting Bald Eagle pairs in the avian study area for the AWA Goodhue project. It was unclear if a seventh nest was active or not due to poor visibility from the road. One nest with babies is about 500 feet from a proposed turbine site. Seven nests were easily visible sitting in a car on the public roadways. There was also evidence of Golden Eagle activity in the area suggesting year round activity.

    The “mitigation plan” for raptors in the AWA Goodhue project is to cut down raptor nesting trees within 1/4 mile of turbines.

  12. @Mary – I’m not aware of any studies involving frogs, which is not to say they haven’t been done. But I’d suspect that impact is going to vary depending on the specific site or project.