Concerns over killing bald eagles and insect-eating bats might have derailed plans for a 78-megawatt wind farm in rural Goodhue County.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Thursday denied a plan submitted by AWA Goodhue Wind Project to monitor and protect the eagles and bats around the proposed 32,700-acre wind farm site in southeast Minnesota.
The project involves building 50 turbines in an area that includes the Mississippi Flyway, a wide corridor used by migrating birds. Its power would be sold to Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy.
Project opponents, organized as the Coalition for Sensible Siting, called it a victory of a cherished national symbol over a project backed by Texas oil and gas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who also supports wind power. AWA Goodhue was formed by Mesa Power Group, which Pickens founded.
“In this political climate, I don’t think the American public is ready to watch Minnesota’s nesting bald eagles pay for a Texas billionaire,” said Mary Hartman, a spokeswoman for the coalition.
The project’s developers need an approved Avian and Bat Protection Plan before they can begin construction of the project, scheduled for this summer. The project already has use and site permits from the commission.
The PUC denial vote was 2-1, but all three commissioners present Thursday said the plan was inadequate.
“I think this plan can be improved,” said PUC Chairman David Boyd, who cast the no vote, saying he preferred the plan
Christy Brusven, an attorney representing AWA Goodhue, told the commissioners that AWA Goodhue has applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a permit that would allow the wind farm to kill no more than about one eagle about every three years.
If approved, it would be the first such permit for bald eagles obtained by a wind farm in the country.
“It is not our intent to have a negative impact on birds and bats in the area, and it certainly is not our intent to kill bald eagles,” she told the commissioners.
But Commissioner J. Dennis O’Brien compared the permit to a duck hunting license, calling it “a license to kill.”
Brusven disagreed, saying turbines might kill eagles, but would not do so on purpose.
“It’s for the risk of a take that’s unavoidable, not that it’s inevitable,” she said.
Brusven had no comment after the vote.
The project has the cooperation of residents on whose land the turbines would be sited, but it has run into stiff opposition for several years from some neighbors.
The Coalition for Sensible Siting said the protection plan vastly underestimates the number of eagle nests and was missing too much monitoring data on bats.
Hartman, who lives in Rochester, said the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has confirmed 13 bald eagle nests found by residents within a buffer zone around the turbine sites.
The equipment to monitor bats only recorded information on the bats’ whereabouts about half of the time, she added.
The developers acknowledged a handful of nests last year, but have suggested that additional eagles may have been attracted to the area by “baiting” with dead livestock or roadkill – a charge that opponents belittled Thursday.
The bat monitors did malfunction but the developers believe they still collected enough information, Brusven said.
Hartman said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to visit the area March 16 to confirm four additional eagle nests spotted by residents that have not yet been identified by the DNR.
AWA Goodhue’s protection plan was designed to hide the number of eagles and bats, Hartman said before the hearing.
“They want to sterilize the area to make it hospitable to turbines and not anything else,” she said.
The commission’s denial puts the developers in a bind, Brusven told the board.
The Fish and Wildlife Service wants an approved Avian and Bat Protection Plan before it approves a take permit, she told them.
AWA Goodhue can resubmit another protection plan to the PUC, but it may be fighting the calendar.
If the project cannot start producing power by the end of this year, it will lose the ability to claim a valuable federal production tax credit that expires on Dec. 31 unless extended by Congress.
Kristi Rosenquist, 48, a Zumbrota Township resident who submitted to the commission photos of eagles and their nests on her property, said the denial puts the project’s finances in jeopardy. It may not be finished in time to qualify for the expiring tax credits, she said.
Hartman was less sure.
“We’re not finished until this project is sited appropriately or until it goes away,” she said.