The Rice County Board of Commissioners approved conditional use permits allowing construction of four wind turbines in the Rice County area Tuesday morning, but tabled the discussion for one project until Dec. 14 because of pending legal action.
Webster and Wheeling townships will each see a tower built, while Richland Township is preparing for two. Commissioner Jake Gillen acknowledged a project in Northfield Township is being challenged in court, but declined to comment further.
No environmental impact studies were required before commissioners voted on the permits because of the small scale of these turbine projects compared to others in the area, Commissioner Galen Malecha said. A wind project in Goodhue County spans 12,000 acres, with a goal to produce 78 megawatts with 52 towers, according to the Goodhue Wind Project website.
The four turbines approved are a newer, two-blade style, producing one megawatt of electricity. Each tower also has a structure on its premises filled with batteries, storing power for peak usage. This style of tower has not been approved in the past, but when proposals meet all the requirements of zoning ordinances, there is no real reason to deny permit requests, Commissioner Gillen said.
“This new model is the wave of the future,” Commissioner Malecha said. “They are smaller and fit into tighter areas, they have a smaller footprint.”
But the economic realities also played a role. Grants and subsidies are available for wind power development at several levels of government, Gillen said.
“It’s all about the money,” he said.
The next obstacle is access to the construction areas. Several of the areas are without direct access, and roads will need to be constructed to reach them due to the heavy equipment needed to build the turbine towers.
“Those roads need to be high quality too,” Commissioner Gillen said. “The [trucks] that move the materials are very heavy-duty, and the materials are not light.”
Any new access points or changes to road infrastructure need to be proposed to the county, but the building of the roads themselves is between the landowner and the company building the turbine, Malecha said.
Landowners lease land conducive to wind generation to companies like Gro Wind LLC, the company that made the permit requests on behalf of several landowners in the Rice County area and will be constructing the turbines. The company pays the landowner a yearly amount dictated in the lease.
Conditional is exactly what these permits are, with each tower carrying at least 10 conditions of approval, ranging from tower and equipment color to burying of power lines and lighting regulations. The four turbines share most of these conditions.
More prominent parts of the permit require the tower owner to follow the approved site plan, comply with all levels of state and local law and bear the responsibly for decommission of the tower “upon cessation of operation,” according to county documents.
Malecha said the commissioners have done a lot of homework on turbine projects, and are constantly educating themselves.
“I certainly want to continue education ourselves as a board,” he said. “But we need to study the overall impact; I believe wind generation is good, but I believe there is a right place for them to be built so it does not have negative impact.”
Wind turbines generate low-intensity noise that can affect people in their homes at night, according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Health, Environmental Services Division. Headaches and sleeplessness are the most common health complaints that are correlated with the presence of wind turbines.
The projects approved Tuesday did not see much opposition because of their distance from residences and highly populated areas, Malecha said. The wind turbines in Richland Township are around 2,000 feet away from the nearest residence, according to county documents. Projects in Wheeling and Webster are 2,400 and 1,400 feet away, respectively.
“Moving forward, we are going to be very aware of people’s issues with wind turbines,” he said. “Issues are being raised, and we need to be sure to address them appropriately.”
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