Minnesota regulators said Thursday that they wanted more time to consider a controversial plan to bring as many as 50 wind turbines to a rural corner of southeast Minnesota, a delay that opponents hope will ultimately scuttle the long-stalled project.
Representatives of the developer behind the estimated $180 million wind farm planned for Goodhue County appeared before the Public Utilities Commission seeking approval of an eagle and bird protection plan and to ask that a series of previous approvals remain in effect despite a recent change in ownership.
Commissioners weighed the case for nearly four hours before concluding that they needed more information about the financing for the 78-megawatt wind farm, contested lease agreements with local property owners and a power purchase agreement with Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy that remains under negotiation.
Commissioners also said they wanted the developer, Peter Mastic, to provide more responses to concerns that have been raised about the wind farm’s wildlife protection plan. Residents fear eagles, raptors, bats and other birds will be killed if the turbines are built.
“For us to do our due diligence we need to be sure the [protection] plan is sufficient, that the ownership is clear and that there is a valid power purchase agreement with a specified in-service date,” said PUC Chair Beverly Heydinger. “All of those things, to me, are important.”
The delay is just the latest in a string of setbacks for the project, which ran into resistance as soon as it was introduced four years ago. Turbines were originally expected to be spinning by the end of 2011.
Representatives for the developer acknowledged the project was taking longer than anticipated and that they remained uncertain how soon construction could begin if regulatory hurdles were overcome.
Even so, Christina Brusven, an attorney with Minneapolis-based Fredrikson & Byron, said $14 million has already been spent on project development and that developers remain committed to seeing their plans to fruition. Financing would fall into place once the project gained more regulatory certainty, she said.
“It’s clear from our financial partners that they cannot move forward with all of uncertainty hanging out in front of it [the project],” Brusven said.
After the hearing, Mastic, who now retains sole ownership in what has been rebranded the New Era Wind Farm, would not say whether the PUC’s delay would prove fatal to the project.
“While New Era would have preferred an affirmative decision, we appreciate the careful deliberations that the PUC has given this proposal,” he said, declining to offer any additional comment.
The latest delay could be costly, though.
Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy and other utilities are trying to beat a year-end expiration of a federal tax credit that helps offset the cost of new wind energy production. To obtain the tax credit, the Goodhue County project would have to be under construction before the end of the year.
Jim Alders, Xcel’s director of regulatory administration, said during the hearing that the utility does not have an immediate need for more wind energy, but it remains committed to the agreement and expects to add more wind energy over the next decade.
New Era has asked Xcel to extend its power-purchase agreement through the end of the year, but the utility has not accepted that deadline, and negotiations are ongoing.
Nearly two dozen residents and a trio of state lawmakers from the Goodhue area spoke against the plan at Thursday’s hearing, saying the project had run its course and that the community needed to move on.
A handful of local investors also were in attendance, but just two residents spoke publicly in favor of the plan.
Opponents said that developers were not forthcoming about the recent change of ownership, had violated lease agreements with property owners who authorized turbines on their land and were presenting regulators with incomplete or misleading information.
“For the first time in this process, what’s best for the applicant, best for citizens, and best for utilities is all the same thing, and that’s to revoke the permit until the developer can come back with a plan that is not pure fantasy,” said Paul Reese, who lives in Goodhue township.
Carol Overland, an attorney representing a group of residents known as Goodhue Wind Truth, said residents would not give up their fight. Overland said she was confident the project would ultimately be shot down, or drag on too long to be feasible.
“We’re committed to following the process all the way through,” she said.
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