SAINT PAUL – The Eco Harmony West Wind project proposed in Fillmore County is awaiting a ruling this spring after petitioning the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for recertification of its Certificate of Need, an amended site permit and two additional years to obtain a power purchase agreement.
The PUC renewed the certificate of need for Gamesa, the project developer, in March 2012, but the other issues have been debated for a full year. The delay has cast doubt on the project’s future after it was permitted with very little resistance three years ago; state permits expire after two years.
The public comment portion of the project’s review period was scheduled to close Wednesday; it was extended Thursday until Feb. 20. A PUC spokesperson says the matter should, under normal circumstances, come before the commission “by the end of March or in April” for a decision.
Much like the debate in Goodhue County over the controversial New Era wind project, the main concerns raised with the Eco Harmony project revolve around wildlife impacts and setbacks.
According to documents filed by Minnesota Department of Commerce staff, “new information on potential avian and bat impacts appears to differ sharply from information that was in the record for this docket at the permit issuance” and “(the) project is now considered a high risk for avian and bat impacts.” The project was previously classified as a low-risk site when permitted by the PUC on Feb. 3, 2010; construction never began based on the lack of a power purchase agreement, prompting the request for recertification.
The new classification reflects changes in wind project guidelines by both the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. However, the change has been challenged by Eco Harmony officials, who argue that “it is unclear whether any change to the project’s risk assessment would be warranted,” per a Feb. 6 PUC filing.
Despite that assertion, the project has voluntarily been altered to make it less intrusive. Initially proposed as a 171-turbine, 280-megawatt project – which would be the largest wind project in state history – officials have reduced it to a 58-turbine, 116-megawatts project. That reduction of 60 percent has been linked to the project’s Bird and Bat Conservation Strategies, which is the USFWS equivalent of Minnesota’s Avian and Bat Protection Plan.
The project has also adopted greater setbacks from six areas of sensitive wildlife habitats, including a five-mile buffer from Mystery Cave State Park, which contains the largest number of hibernating bats in Minnesota.
Still, concerns linger for wildlife officials. Bird and bat fatalities are projected to be four times higher than determined during the 2010 permitting process. According to the Minnesota Natural Heritage Information System, which was tasked with examining wildlife activity in the area, 45 species of birds classified as Species of Greatest Conservation Need have been viewed in the project footprint.
Additionally, two bat species on the state’s special concern list are present, along with two more bat species that could be added later this year. Also found were three birds – Acadian flycatcher, Louisiana waterthrush and cerulean warbler – on the special concern list.
The Heritage designations carry no legal authority and are designed as best-practices guidelines for wildlife conservation. However, it’s unclear how the presence of bald eagles, which are federally protected, might affect the project.
“Harmony Wind conducted a comprehensive eagle nest survey in 2012 and is currently consulting with the USFWS regarding compliance with the Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act,” Eco Harmony wrote in its PUC filing.
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