Opponents of a controversial wind farm in Goodhue County said they will go to court after a state agency voted Thursday to allow construction to proceed despite fierce objections from local residents and widespread concerns over the potential effect on bald eagles and golden eagles.
Litigation could raise difficult questions about an industry that is slated to play a large role in Minnesota’s energy future, lawyers said. The Minnesota Court of Appeals will be asked to decide how much local control counties and townships will have on siting of the massive structures and how much their environmental impact should weigh on deliberations of the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
The dispute has the potential to create an “interesting clash between different branches of the government,” said Daniel Schleck, an attorney representing a citizens group that has fought the Goodhue County project since it was first proposed three years ago.
Officials from the company, AWA Goodhue Wind, did not return phone calls Thursday.
The conflict between two opposing environmental missions – clean energy and protecting wildlife – is spreading as wind farms sprout across the nation. Researchers say the massive towers are killing unknown quantities of wandering birds and bats.
In Minnesota, the drive for wind energy comes in part from a state law that requires utilities to derive 25 percent of their energy from wind by 2020. The pressure has been intensified by industry fears that the federal Production Tax Credit, which greatly reduces the costs of the projects, will expire this year.
The vast majority of wind farms in Minnesota have faced little controversy, said Josh Gackle, regional policy manager for Wind on the Wires, a wind energy advocacy group.
But this one, a $179 million project near Red Wing, has seen significant local opposition from the beginning. Goodhue County commissioners also fought the project because, after a protracted hearing earlier this year, the PUC decided the company only had to make a good-faith effort to meet the county’s rule that turbines had to be at least half a mile from neighboring property owners. The PUC set a minimum of 1,626 feet.
A state statute gives local governments the authority to establish such ordinances, but it allows the PUC to override them for just cause. The issue in the appeals court case, said Schleck, will be whether the PUC “can ignore the county ordinance.”
Goodhue County Attorney Steve Betcher said he will ask county commissioners next week whether they also want to appeal the decision. He said it could be a critical test of the state statute.
This summer local residents also began questioning what effect the 50 turbines would have on the local eagle population, a concern that was also raised by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The site, near bluffs along the Mississippi River, is prime habitat for eagles. Now, there are dozens of eagles – including two rare and protected golden eagles – roosting in the area as they prepare to migrate for the winter, according to neighbors and wildlife officials. Local residents say it’s also a prime spring and summer nesting area for eagles, which return to the same nest year after year.
The PUC required a bat and bird protection plan that is now being developed with federal wildlife officials and the company, but at the same time it allowed the project to move forward. It is not clear how the design would prevent eagle deaths, or whether the company would apply for a special federal permit that would give it an “accidental take” exemption from the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Unlike other industrial projects, wind farms are exempt from the state’s requirement for environmental reviews before permits are granted. Schleck said an appeal would test that exemption, and perhaps set a standard for environmental review for the PUC.