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New questions raised as Goodhue County wind project pursues permits

ZUMBROTA – The New Era wind project near Zumbrota recently changed names, owners and developers, but the Minnesota Public Utilities filed paperwork Thursday that could throw up new roadblocks for the most delayed, contentious wind project in state history.

The three-page PUC filing lists 11 questions for owner Peter Mastic, who purchased the $150 million project last month from Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens. The questions must be answered by Nov. 15 and seek details that could have wide-ranging effects on the project, including a potential review of its status as a community-based energy development. The PUC also requests information on whether New Era is in default with Xcel Energy for its 2010 power purchase agreement, and why New Era did not seek a site permit transfer after its change from AWA Goodhue, among other things.

While Mastic did not return calls this week for comment, Mags Rheude, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, answered one of the PUC’s questions during an interview with the Post-Bulletin on Monday. She said that Mastic plans to file a revised avian and bat protection plan (ABPP) with the PUC by Nov. 9. The PUC rejected the project’s initial ABPP in Feb. due to insufficient data. It’s the final state-mandated permitting hurdle remaining for the project, which has faced an unprecedented three-plus year permitting battle.

She also said that Mastic intends to file an application with the USFWS that same day for the nation’s first incidental take permit so the project may harm or kill a limited number of bald eagles without penalty. Numerous wind projects across the country are reportedly considering such a permit, but New Era would be the first to go on record with the federal governing body for an official application.

Timing and interplay between the two filings remain filled with questions, though. It’s just the second ABPP for a Minnesota wind project and the take permit is breaking entirely new ground. Additionally, the two permitting agencies represent different levels of government – state and federal – and will be working on much different timelines.

The PUC can put the protection plan on its agenda after a 45-day review period; the previous ABPP was 127 pages long and the updated version is expected to be even thicker. Rheude said Mastic would like the matter heard before the end of the year. However, the USFWS timeline to consider the incidental take permit is more prolonged. Rheude said the federal agency’s review will take “several months or more.”

“We need to see how many eagles they’ve requested (to kill annually) and if we agree with that,” she said.

The protection plan must be approved before construction of the project can begin but the take permit is not.