RED WING – The intrigue surrounding the hotly contested AWA Goodhue wind project near Zumbrota continues to swirl on multiple levels.
In the last two weeks, Minneola and Belle Creek townships have both tabled negotiations with the wind company on required road-use agreements. Perhaps more importantly, multiple reports have surfaced this week that Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens may want out as an investor in the $180 million project that has bitterly divided the rural Goodhue County community.
According to Minneapolis attorney Dan Schleck, the Pickens rumors began after an invitation-only meeting was held Tuesday night in Red Wing at the law firm of Dick Gorman, who was a member of the original local investors group dubbed Ventem LLC. Gorman’s secretary said Friday he was out of town for the weekend and calls to National Wind, the project developer, were not returned, continuing the company’s media silence since last fall.
However, Schleck asserts that National Wind CEO Peter Mastic is seeking a new investor group based on Pickens’ stance.
An email sent Friday to Jay Rosser, Pickens’ public relations manager, seeking comment was not returned, but Pickens made strong statements in an April 11 appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that created national headlines.
“The jobs are in the oil and gas industry in the United States,” Pickens said. “… I’m in the wind business … I’ve lost my (butt) in the business.”
Schleck has been monitoring the wind project closely because he represents the Coalition for Sensible Siting, a citizens opposition group that has appealed the Minnesota Public Ulitilies Commission’s decision to approve a site permit for the 78-megawatt project. A ruling from the appellate court is expected in July. He’s also serving as legal counsel for “more than five” Goodhue County citizens who were recently sued by National Wind for trying to void their contracts.
Belle Creek Town Board chairman Chad Ryan confirmed that he’s heard similar feedback from citizens who attended Tuesday’s meeting, though he declined further comment based on some of the details that have leaked out.
According to Schleck, the lack of road-use agreements with townships was identified as a serious problem for the 32,000-acre wind development during Tuesday’s meeting of potential investors. One possible resolution that was allegedly discussed involved paying cash-strapped Belle Creek Township $150,000 for road access.
On May 1, Belle Creek Township sent a letter to AWA Goodhue saying all negotiations on a road agreement will be suspended until other project issues have been resolved. Ryan says he’s yet to hear an official response from the wind company. Additionally, Minneola Township hired legal counsel at its May 8 meeting, though Rochester attorney Ken Schueler says his client will take “basically the same approach” on its road agreement as Belle Creek.
At Belle Creek’s meeting, the township board approved permits for three new meteorological towers for National Wind that will be used to study the activity of bats and birds; the PUC required additional field work in February after it denied the project’s initial avian and bat protection plan. Mike Wozniak, Goodhue County’s planning and zoning administrator, says those building permits will likely be approved shortly by county staff.
The ABPP must be resubmitted and approved before the project can begin construction. Despite having yet to secure financing, Mastic has told local officials that he’s targeting July to break ground on the 48-turbine project.
It must be operational by the end of 2012 to be eligible for millions through the expiring federal production tax credit. The project has been seeking state approval since the fall of 2008, meaning the unprecedented permitting process already caused it to miss out on more than $50 million in funding when the Section 1603 federal grant program expired at the end of 2011.
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