ZUMBROTA – The final state-mandated permitting hurdle left for the New Era wind energy project is currently under review – for the second time.
A ruling on the proposed wind farm’s avian and bat protection plan is expected in the next 60 days, according a spokesperson from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
The hotly debated protection plan was resubmitted to the commission on Nov. 2 by New Era CEO Peter Mastic. The public comment period is set to close today. The 90-page document is the second iteration of the protection plan. The PUC rejected the project’s initial attempt in Feb. 2012, saying it was insufficient.
The PUC received more than 50 comments from the public on the revised plan. The majority of the comments were highly critical of the Goodhue County project, which has faced an unprecedented four-plus year permitting process and received national attention. A typical Minnesota wind project is approved in 6-12 months.
However, New Era, formerly AWA Goodhue, found increased – though not unequivocal – support for its new protection plan from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Both agencies skewered New Era’s earlier plan.
“In general, this version of the ABPP is improved in comparison to previous drafts,” wrote DNR’s Jamie Schrenzel in her five-page comment letter. “The document is clearer and better written than previous drafts. It should be acknowledged that the project developers have invested considerable effort into pre-construction surveys.”
If the ABPP is finally approved, construction could begin shortly. Breaking ground by the end of 2013 would qualify the project for tens of millions in federal funding through the recently extended production tax credit.
But many questions remain.
While bald eagles, golden eagles and bats have dominated the discussion for years, New Era’s additional field work found two other species of note within the 32,000-acre project footprint. Henslow’s sparrows and northern harriers were recently observed in the area; the sparrows are state-listed as an endangered species, while the USFWS listed the harrier as a bird of national concern. The DNR considers the harrier a species of greatest conservation need.
To minimize environmental impacts, New Era has proposed a temporary turbine shutdown for a period not to exceed the loss of 1,200 megawatts in a given year.
On Wednesday, the USFWS released its collision risk modeling assessment. Described as a worst-case scenario, the 31-page study suggests that New Era turbines may kill up to 13.8 bald eagles and 0.059 golden eagles on an annual basis. That equates to more than 400 bald eagle and nearly two golden eagle deaths over the 30-year life of the project.
Those numbers are nearly 31 times higher than what New Era has estimated using a different, more conservative assessment. New Era has projected annual deaths of up to .045 and 0.006, respectively.
“The Service would like to stress that there is no collision risk model for predicting eagle fatalities at wind farms that has been tested and shown to be accurate,” the assessment says. “Neither the Band model (used by New Era) nor the Service’s model is based on bald eagle fatality data at wind farms, because such data is not available.”
Harming either eagle species is a federal crime. New Era has expressed an interest in applying for the country’s first incidental take permit to kill bald eagles. No such permit exists for golden eagles.
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