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Counties prepare for coming of wind farms

Pennington County officials are delaying a scheduled hearing this week on proposed regulations for wind power generators, pending a review by the U.S. Air Force tied to potential impacts of wind turbines on Ellsworth Air Base.

Meanwhile in Meade County, planning officials are waiting for an application for construction of a wind farm a few miles east of Sturgis that would have about 30 turbines in its initial stage.

The two counties are dealing with an issue that is likely to be more prominent in the area as commercial wind farms come to western South Dakota and individuals or groups seek development of alternative energy sources on a smaller scale.

“Wind farms are definitely possibilities for us, especially with soaring gas prices,” Pennington County Planning Director Dan Jennissen said Friday.

The Pennington County Planning and Zoning Commission had scheduled a hearing on the new set of wind-generator regulations for Tuesday. But the hearing is being postponed as county officials wait for a review and comments from the U.S. Air Force.

Depending on design and location, wind farms can interfere with radar and pose aerial hazards for low-flying aircraft. Jennissen said the county wants the Air Force’s perspective before proceeding with the regulations.

Jennissen said he isn’t aware of any plans for wind farms in the county but believes they will come before long. Currently, a few small wind generators are scattered throughout the county, but there are no large wind farms yet, he said.

Existing generators required a conditional use permit, but the county needs a clear set of specific wind-generator regulations to prepare for the future, Jennissen said. Work on those regulations has been delayed by priority focus on regulations for septic systems, he said.

“This will clearly identify what needs to be submitted and where, and where it can and cannot go,” Jennissen said of the regulation process. “We need to get something in place.”

Meade County has had its wind-generator regulations in place for five years or so, deputy planning director Bill Rich said. Duke Energy, a power company with operations in the Midwest and South, has been working with landowners to secure property leases for the project, Rich said.

“They’re trying to meet with a lot of the stakeholders now,” he said. “They already have lease holders.”

The proposed location for the wind farm begins about 5 miles east of the Sturgis airport, Rich said. With an established power transmission line nearby, it looks to be a good location, he said.

There isn’t any indication that the location would pose a problem for Ellsworth Air Force Base, but Meade County officials still want developers to be in communication with Air Force personnel, Rich said.

The wind farm would be good for the local economy as well as contributing to alternative energy sources, he said.

“We’re happy to see it come,” he said. “So far, everything looks good.”

Wind power is a promising possibility in South Dakota, but so far, it has been largely limited to the East River region. Rapid City native Mark Eilers, president of the alternative-energy development company Renewable Solutions, is working with landowners in Butte County north of Belle Fourche on a $100 million wind farm with about 30 turbines. Eilers said earlier this year that he hoped to begin construction on the project sometime in 2012.