ZUMBROTA – The construction timeline for the AWA Goodhue wind project has apparently been bumped back a month – from June to July – but developers of the 78-megawatt project maintain it will still be operational by December to qualify for millions via the federal production tax credit, which expires after this year.
That was the message delivered last week by Minneola Township clerk Sarah Pettit, who had received an update from National Wind CEO Peter Mastic. Mastic did not attend the township’s monthly meeting, and calls seeking verification went unanswered; National Wind has not responded to interview requests since Mastic took over last fall.
While National Wind continues to present an optimistic front, some remain skeptical of the company’s timeline. Numerous issues remain unresolved at the local, state and federal level. That point especially was apparent during a recent Belle Creek Township meeting.
Chad Ryan, chairman of the Belle Creek Town Board, said his group has halted negotiation of a road agreement with AWA Goodhue – against the wind company’s wishes – because of its belief that “about eight” other issues must fall into place before the road agreement is even necessary. Minneola Township unveiled a draft road agreement at Tuesday’s meeting but also has expressed a desire to work hand-in-hand with Belle Creek moving forward.
“We feel like they have a lot of stuff left to do before they even need a road agreement,” Ryan said.
In addition to the township road agreements, AWA Goodhue must resolve the following issues before it can build its $180 million project: setback agreements from local natural gas pipelines; get its Avian and Bat Protection Plan approved after its first version was rejected; find property to site its northern electrical substation; receive a favorable ruling from the Minnesota Court of Appeals to uphold its contested site permit; secure financing; and receive the first Incidental Take Permit for bald eagles in the United States.
The local project has drawn national attention due to the public reaction, but also because it’s breaking new ground with the take permit, which would allow the company’s turbines to injure or kill a limited number of bald eagles without penalty. That situation has taken an important step forward in recent weeks.
On March 29, Mags Rheude, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jamie Edwards from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and a representative from the Minnesota Department of Commerce toured the 32,000-acre project site near Zumbrota to establish the number of active bald eagle nests in the area. That number has come under intense scrutiny since National Wind’s initial filing with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission identified zero nests and project critics cried foul.
Rheude said last week that she had located three nests within a 2-mile radius of the 48-turbine project and another eight within the 10-mile buffer zone; that information will be used to help determine whether the project is considered a low-, medium- or high-risk site with regard to the incidental take permit. Edwards says there are at least two other sites that could be the start of new nests that require additional monitoring, though many of the nests reported by people turned out to be red-tailed hawk or owl nests.
“Clearly there is eagle activity within that project area,” Edwards said. “The company has to do additional eagle monitoring to determine flight paths and take that into consideration in siting their turbines.”
On Monday, Rheude provided AWA Goodhue with her initial comments on the company’s draft take permit. She said a revised draft likely will be submitted shortly, which would lead to an extensive environmental assessment that could require months of additional work. Because it’s the first of its kind, it’s unclear how long the full incidental take permit process will take.
Approval of the take permit isn’t necessary to begin construction of the project, Rheude said, but there was plenty of debate at the PUC in February about how the permit affects the Avian and Bat Protection Plan, which must be approved before breaking ground.
According to Rheude, AWA Goodhue officials plan to submit a revised Avian and Bat Protection Plan to the PUC this summer. To coincide with the new construction timetable, that document likely has to be submitted within the next few weeks to allow for sufficient review before a PUC hearing is scheduled. However, that might be an ambitious goal.
In the PUC’s report of its February decision, it says that bat monitoring in AWA Goodhue’s initial Avian and Bat Protection Plan was “severely compromised, and the permit condition was not met.” It calls for “an additional season of monitoring in 2013.”
Also, a citizens group has challenged the PUC’s decision to grant a site permit. A decision from a panel of three appellate court judges is expected in June or July. National Wind has said it can’t secure financing until that decision is finalized.
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