SAINT PAUL – The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission took another pass Thursday in deciding the fate of the controversial New Era wind project in Goodhue County.
Before a packed room of around 100 people, including a cadre of lawyers on both sides, the commissioners voted unanimously to re-open the certificate of need docket, which was previously approved by the PUC in June 2011. The action also tables any decision on the project’s community-based energy development (C-BED) status, power purchase agreement, avian and bat protection plan, and every other issue that was on Thursday’s agenda.
The re-examination process might even include another hearing before an administrative law judge, which would likely extend the debate another full year.
New Era has also been asked to respond to issues raised by the public, while also addressing mitigation requests from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. While the project is the first in the country to apply for an incidental take permit for bald eagles, those issues could eliminate some of the 48 turbines and reduce the capacity of the 78-megawatt project.
“Even though this has been a four-year process, there is something still missing,” PUC commissioner Betsy Wergin said.
In New Era owner/developer Peter Mastic’s terse statement to the media before making a quick exit, Mastic said he “would have preferred an affirmative vote” and he “looks forward to reading the written order,” which is expected to be issued in a few weeks. It’s unclear what effect Thursday’s decision might have on the future of the project.
The development, previously owned by Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, has faced an unprecedented permitting process since applying for state permits in 2009; a Minnesota wind project is typically approved in 6-12 months. Additional questions have arisen since Mastic acquired the project in October 2012.
Dennis Gadient, a Goodhue County farmer and New Era advisory board member, said Thursday that developers have already spent more than $14 million while seeking permits, most of which figures to have been spent on legal fees.
Two local opposition groups, Goodhue Wind Truth and the Coalition for Sensible Siting, have spent a total of six figures fighting the project since 2008. Twenty of the 22 speakers during Thursday’s hearing were critical of the project
“At some point in time, we have to understand that there are good places for wind, and some places it just doesn’t fit,” said Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, who was echoed by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, and Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing. “It’s time to move on.”
New Era is currently trying to resolve a contract dispute with Xcel Energy regarding its power purchase agreement. The wind company has claimed that the 2010 agreement has been affected by events out of it’s control, specifically citing the unusually long permitting process. Mastic’s group has proposed ways to “cure” the power purchase agreement issues in order to maintain the contract, which might soon be in default.
Jim Alders, of Xcel, told the commissioners that his company has felt some “discomfort” about what he characterized as “a difficult issue.” Details of the contract are considered trade secret and were not made public during Thursday’s hearing, but New Era may need to seek a new power purchase agreement if the issues aren’t resolved shortly.
Minneapolis attorney Dan Schleck, representing a number of Goodhue County landowners who have canceled their contracts with New Era, estimates that his clients represent up to 25 percent of the 12,000 acres in the project. That further complicates the complex debate.
“Everything has become so intermingled,” Wergin lamented. “Oh, man, we have a lot of issues.”
While some project critics characterized Thursday’s decision as the death throes of the controversial wind project, others have grown weary of the PUC’s indecision.
“We need to start bringing a football to these meetings because they punt all the time,” Goodhue County Planning/Zoning Administrator Michael Wozniak said. “At some point, they have to show some leadership.”
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