(Photo by Nic McPhee via Creative Commons)

In Minnesota, looking for lessons from Goodhue wind fight

The developers of an embattled wind project in southeastern Minnesota finally pulled the plug this week, telling the state on Tuesday they would no longer be pursuing the controversial project.

The 78-megawatt, $179 million project was initially proposed in 2009 by a subsidiary of T. Boone Pickens’ Mesa Power Group and, after a string of setbacks, was sold last year to New Era Wind.

A group of citizens fought the project from the beginning on every front. Early testimony focused primarily on health and financial fears, with residents raising concerns about spoiled views, property values, and so-called wind turbine syndrome.

Ultimately it was flaws in the developers’ wildlife impact studies and protection plans that did in the project. Minnesota regulators rejected the developers’ eagle protection plan in February 2012 after objections were raised by opponents and the state Department of Natural Resources.

As the messy, four-year dispute comes to a close, we spoke with two people close to the controversy as well as an expert on the wind industry for their perspective on what, if any, legacy or lessons the case leaves behind.

County attorney: Clarity needed on setbacks

Steve Betcher spent months helping to draft, then defend, Goodhue County’s wind turbine setback rules, which would have banned turbines from being installed within about a half mile of any neighboring home.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ultimately disregarded the county rules in favor of a roughly quarter-mile setback based on state noise standards. State law says the PUC can ignore county setback rules if it finds good cause to do so.

“They do not follow a set of standards that are uniform. They use a case-by-case analysis, which makes it very difficult for anyone in the public to know what rules are going to be applied,” Betcher said.

Betcher said the controversial case revealed a flawed and unpredictable process for permitting wind farms in the state — one that he hopes regulators will be motivated to fix in its wake.

“It just went on too long because there was no step-by-step process,” he said.

Betcher said the public doesn’t have enough opportunity to review or comment on large wind farms early on in the process. He also said the state’s noise-based setbacks are inadequate because they don’t account for low-frequency noise.

While there’s no conclusive evidence to support the claims, some researchers suspect low-frequency noise — deep vibrations that are inaudible to the human ear — could be the cause of health symptoms reported by some neighbors of wind farms.

Minnesota needs a more specific noise regulation for wind farms, Betcher said. “I’d like it to be relevant to the kind of noise we’re talking about from a wind generator: low-frequency noise.”

The utilities commission should come up with rules, he said, that consider infrasound and also provide more details on how sound is measured. For example, should levels be taken indoors or outdoors, at ground level or at tower height?

He admits the challenges, though.

“The low-frequency noise issue has only been evolving in the last five years or so, so some of the equipment to measure it hasn’t been available,” Betcher said, “and the regulatory bodies worldwide haven’t universally accepted that as a concern.”

Activist: More projects deserve scrutiny

Marie McNamara has spent much of the last four years fighting to stop the wind project.

“It took a long time for anyone to listen,” said McNamara, who co-founded Goodhue Wind Truth with her husband, Bruce.

McNamara said she thinks she and her fellow opponents helped put important issues in the public eye. Now that the Goodhue County project has been defeated, she hopes other wind projects in the state see similar opposition.

“Many more of the projects in Minnesota should be under more scrutiny,” McNamara said. “I don’t think you’re going to put that in your article. There are other [wind] projects in Minnesota that need more scrutiny.”

Which projects? “All you’ve got to do is start looking through the dockets like we do. Do the work,” she said.

On whether the efforts of Goodhue Wind Truth will have a lasting impact on wind development in the state, McNamara said she hopes so.

“I hope in 20 years there’s not inefficient, poorly sited, environmentally impacting projects that are running around under the heading of renewable and sustainable,” she said.

McNamara criticized the use of desktop studies, rather than field counts, to assess the risk to birds and bats, and she criticized the Minnesota Department of Commerce for not playing a more aggressive watchdog role.

“There weren’t requirements for accuracy. If there’s no accountability, what do you get? You get a big problem,” she said.

Wind advocate: An anomaly, not an omen

Joe Sullivan, regional policy manager for Wind on the Wires, says the Goodhue County controversy may cause developers to redouble their community outreach efforts, but it doesn’t represent a sea change in the way the industry does business.

“When the community is not happy, this is what can happen. That’s the takeaway,” Sullivan said. “But [wind developers] already knew that lesson.”

Wind on the Wires is a non-profit group that advocates for the wind industry, particularly on transmission issues. It’s also a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Sullivan couldn’t say whether the developers erred in their early outreach efforts, as opponents have alleged. The organization doesn’t typically comment on specific projects, nor was it directly involved in the process. (Editor’s note: WOW did, however, provide testimony to the PUC in 2010 objecting to tougher siting standards that were under consideration for the Goodhue project at the time)

In general, though, the wind industry doesn’t view the Goodhue opposition as an omen of things to come, he said, and neither do they consider the case a sign of broader problems with the way projects are developed in the state.

“Goodhue is a very unique situation. It’s a very unique set of circumstances. That’s the way that many people in the industry look at it,” Sullivan said. “It’s an anomaly.”

Sullivan said Minnesota has a very clear regulatory process for wind projects, and that — despite what opponents claim — it hasn’t fundamentally changed in the wake of the Goodhue case.

“It is by no means just checking off the boxes. It is a thorough process, and there is a thorough review,” Sullivan said.

Another thing that hasn’t changed, according to Sullivan, is developers’ appetite to do projects in the state.

“The industry is not turning away,” said Sullivan, citing 400 megawatts worth of projects slated to be built in Minnesota over the next year. “That’s hundreds of millions of dollars of development that’s been made post-Goodhue.”

15 thoughts on “In Minnesota, looking for lessons from Goodhue wind fight

  1. THIS IS AN INACCURATE statement in your story:
    (comment refers to Wind on the Wires:) “The organization doesn’t typically comment on specific projects, nor was it directly involved in the process.” (emphasis on “nor was (WOW) directly involved in the process”) NO, that is WRONG. Wind on the Wires was recognized and spoke at the MPUC in defense of the Goodhue Wind project on numerous occasions. This happened to the EXCLUSION of citizens being able to comment at times. Give me a bit of time and I can locate hearing dates when the Commission took comment from the applicant and WOW, to the exclusion of Goodhue County and citizens groups. This is how the process does NOT work well for Minnesota citizens. Although, this article is otherwise well written, WOW, which is a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy, most certainly DID involve themselves directly in the process. (Department of Commerce also used WOW comments to the exclusion of credible citizen information in briefing papers to the Commission.) Those who attended every hearing, and read briefing papers, distinctly remember this fact.
    Respectfully submitted,
    Marie McNamara
    Goodhue Wind Truth

  2. Joe Sullivan’s comment representing Wind on Wires is inaccurate. The Goodhue Wind/New Era Wind Farm was not an “anomaly.” Yes, different wind projects have a different set of circumstances. But this project is one of many in Minnesota that should never have gotten off the ground: 1) Eco-Harmony–Proposed near sink holes & impacts bat caves in the area; 2) Prairie Rose–Sited 1/4 mile from Sky Prairie Nat’l Wildlife Refurge; 3) Bent Tree–Permanent loss of TV signal & violates MN PAC noise standard; 4) Buffalo Ridge II–Interrupted phone service when turbines are turned on; 5) Elm Creek II–Residents in project complained of noise & got “white noise machines” as only mitigation.

  3. Thanks, Marie – I’ve searched the docket and found one instance of WOW commenting on the Goodhue project, and provided a link above. We’ll continue looking to see if there are other instances and will correct/update the story as warranted.

  4. This is what the Goodhue County fight was about. When people support the wind industry they support an industry built on fraud, the slaughter of protected species, and hiding these terrible impacts. The Wolfe Island studies were rigged and hid somewhere close to 98% of the mortality from their turbines.

    A recent AP story about eagles killed by turbines has a similar ring to it because the eagle kills from turbines were grossly understated in the Raptor Research article by at least 90%. They never come close to finding them all, the industry hides bodies, and even if they do find them, the mortality wounded that wander far away from the industry’s tiny search areas do not count in their studies.

    The bald eagle killed by a wind turbine seen in the photograph at the link below is over well over 400 meters yards from the turbines and this disgusting industry does not count these bodies in their mortality studies because it is outside their tiny designated search areas. This is typical of the wind industry’s fraud that has been going on since the early 1980′s.

    PHOTO OF BALD EAGLE KILLED BY A WIND TURBINE CAN BE SEEN ON YAHOO NEWS study-wind-farms-killed-67-eagles-5-years-160226373

  5. The Goodhue Wind/New Era project is indeed not an anomaly with accurate information not being presented to the MPUC. Neglect or willfull omission , I do not know but the Goodhue/New Era project has resulted in a game of “Catch Up” on already built projects that the MPUC finds it is lacking information on.
    Jeffers Wind 20 Docket# 05-1220 request for a transfer of ownership Sub.#20112-59307-01 resulted in an inquiry by the EFP staff with question as basic as: How many turbines were built and what kind? How many megawatts? Sub.#20111-68343-01 They didn’t know who owned the project or if it had even been built. Jeffers now claims it has no contractual obligation to set aside funds for decommissioning.
    The actions of AWA/New Era might have the effect of putting an eye on current & future wind development in Minnesota and rightfully so.

  6. When Joe Sullivan of WOW was asked where we could finf the environmental reports informing the permitting and siting of industrial wind in this state his response was rather stunning: No such study exists. When Ellen Anderson (Governor Dayton’s special energy advisor) and Bill Grant (Deputy Commissioner of Commerce) were asked for this information they referred citizens to the 2006/07 wind resources dtudy. The study informing our decisions on this supposed environmental policy looks at 1) available federal money 2) available transmission and 3) the wind resources map. There are 0 environmental considerations. One need only look at the poir wind resource in the proposed New Era project footprint to realize that the wind resource is not as serious a consideration as the availability of taxpayer money and cheap/easy access. The AWEA policy document from 2011 is even more enlightening as their discussions related to dnvironmental concerns focused on undermining environmental protections to. “bring certainty to developers and investors.” Minnesota’s entire wind industry standard was explained in 2010 findings for the white paper presented on the topic of noise: after scknowledging that it is a problem and current methods of measuring to protect public health are NONAPPLICABLE, they decided to stick with “industry best practices.” Industry best practices were developed by Enron to ensure they got what was best for them. The reality is that industrial wind is a $ game paraded as policy based on environmental science. If environmental science was applied and environmental protections applied, it is likely that this industry would collapse as surely as an ecosystem without bats.

  7. Minnesota continues to determine the minimum distance between a home and a wind turbine by requiring that the wind project meet the State’s Industrial Noise Standard. This might be reasonable if the Standard measured low-frequency noise produced by turbines. Low frequency noise was identified as the source of human health complaints by the MN Department of Health in their award winning 2009 study, “Public Health Impacts of Wind Turbines”. The study states in part, “Low frequency noise is primarily a problem…in…homes, especially at night.” Recommendations of the study include, “…evaluate the low frequency noise component”
    “…There is at present enough information to determine the need for better assessment of wind turbine noise, especially at low frequencies”, said MDH Commissioner Sanne Magnan, M.D., Ph.D., August 13, 2009. (DOC ID 201010-46371-01)

    The Public Utilities Commission was told plainly by the MN Pollution Control Agency’s Industrial Noise Standard expert, that the standard was not designed to measure turbine noise during the PUC’s February 1, 2010 public hearing (Docket 09-845). MPCA Commissioner Paul Aasen also stated on September 21, 2011, “We don’t have a noise standard that’s designed to work for [wind] turbines”.

    The PUC requested and, on October 13, 2011, received a study which states in part: “Noise produced by wind turbines differs fundamentally from the noise emitted by other power facilities.” “Essentially everything about it is unique.” “Specialized techniques need to be used to assess impacts .” (Prepared for the MPUC by David M. Hessler)

    Because the MPCA noise standard does not measure low frequency turbine noise, it offers no protection to the health of people living in the project areas. Since the PUC has not yet undertaken the measurement and study of low-frequency noise, I am hopeful that the MPUC will take concrete action to protect human health by requiring much larger set back distances from homes in any project not built yet. A good starting place may be the 1000 meter/ 3281 foot minimum distance required by Germany between a house and a turbine.

  8. Jim Weigand: a problem the USGS hopes to address is the wide variation in methods used by the industry both pre and post construction. Bats are a particularly hot topic, in part because so little is known about them. It is important to establish a standard methodology to gather and collate data so it can inform wildlife experts. The other part of the problem is that there is no reporting requirements for post-construction mortality so the USFWS doesn’t get the data even if it exists. The USGS has asked the industry for their cooperation in reporting post-construction mortality data but they refuse to do so if the information is not classified as Trade Secret. Their expressed fear? Public support for wind energy will wane if mortality data is avaiable to the public. There are some developers who did not object to gathering and sharing data, but it was my impression that they were the exception and not the rule. As for the recent study where 67 eagle deaths by wind turbines were investigated and verified: the authors specifically stated that the meat grinder that has decimated golden eagle populations in California, Altamont Pass, was not included. Bit is widely acknowledged that over 2000 golden eagles have been (verified) killed by industrial wind there. The numbers would have grossly skewed this report but it does not mean that the problem is not recognized. The 2011 meeting in Fort Collins to discuss the uncertain future of golden eagles in North America highlights the concern of raptor experts. Industrial wind figured quite prominently in their discussions. Considering the difficulty in getting the dead birds out of a largely unwilling industry. I’d say the recent report is quite good. I’m still waiting for the data that tells how many eagles have been killed by cats. I am also looking for data that compares the impact of housecats on particular species in defined areas, which is what we have with industrial wind, along with infoation on how their presence causes species’ to abandon their nesting, hunting , breeding, foraging and stop-over habitat. Sea ducks off the coast of Denmark left yheir foraging habitat when turbines were installed off-shore. They returned 10 years later, when sn unnatural reef that afforded feeding opportunities grew on the turbine base. Getting to the feeding area is literally a dicey proposition. Marsh ducks are leaving their habitat in ND and raptor abundance went down by 47% at Buffalo Ridge MN. And golden eagle populations in California cannot keep up with mortality by turbines. Do we know of impacts like that from housecats?

  9. WOW is lying. They weighed in directly on good cause to ignore local county setbacks for this project. WOW is primarily responsible for the PUC issuing a site permit for the Goodhue wind project. WOW’s wish to spin the current failings of the project as an aberration runs contrary to current events. Attitudes towards wind development are shifting across the USA and Canada. The true cost of wind energy electricity is about 18 cents per kilowatt hour to produce. For wind to become economically the retail electrics rate for consumers will have to be more than double our current rates of around 10 to 12 cents.
    The citizens here were told that resistance to the wind project was futile. They fought it it anyway and were largely ignored. In the end the developers lost their ass’et’s. Far from being an aberration this project represents a fundamental change in public attitudes towards the whole concept of “free” wind energy.

  10. Nice comment, Rich Conrad. I would add that attitudes have not just shifted in the US and Canada, but that they are shifting worldwide. Germany is seeing increasing civil unrest as rising electrical rates cause electricity to become a luxury item. This is the heavy-hand of government lying to the people in order to force changes in consumption patterns.

  11. While I understand the bird and low frequency noise issue, I think we need to act quickly to restrict CO2 emissions as the EPA just did or bird habitat will be a thing of the past. If you all support wildlife and quality of life for your communities and organized against the project then you must support the EPA and what it does in this realm. I consider various government organizations as well as WOW as my organized way of support for this sort of project. Wind is certainly not the only answer to CO2 emissions but is one piece of the puzzle.

  12. The real lesson is not to propose expensive and erratic energy projects when you have effective, reliable, and powerful carbon free projects like Prairie Island already running in your area.

  13. Well, running at 50%. One of Prairie Island’s units is down for maintenance right now.

  14. Nationally nuclear plantts have a 90% capacity factor, and nearly all of the down time is the scheduled refueling stop. Wind farms are at an erratic 29%.

  15. My point is that reliability is a function of grid management, not individual generating sources. Only considering capacity factor (which, for wind is actually closer to 40%, incidentally) is as misleading as only considering, say, fuel costs.
    And before you go down the “yes, but cycling on and off!” road, there’s a new NREL study you might want to take a look at.