SAINT PAUL – The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission bucked staff recommendations last week to give the go-ahead – for a second time – to the EcoHarmony wind project near Mystery Caves State Park in Fillmore County.
The five-member commission initially approved the 280-megawatt project in February 2010. Delays caused the state permits to nearly lapse in 2012. Officials from Gamesa Energy, the owner and developer, filed paperwork seeking extensions for those permits but encountered resistance from residents and state and federal wildlife agencies.
Concerns were raised about environmental effects of the project on bats and birds, its proximity to a state park and the idea of dozens of turbines being sited on known sinkholes, among other things.
Early this month, PUC staff filed recommendations that would have denied EcoHarmony extensions and could have forced the project to start over by starting the revocation process. However, the PUC voted unanimously Thursday to extend the project’s certificate of need, amend the site permit and end consideration for revocation.
One of the key reasons for that reversal is because Gamesa responded to the criticism by adopting what Senior Project Developer Bill Smeaton described as “painful concessions.” The 171-turbine, 280-megawatt project – which would have been the largest wind project in Minnesota – was reduced to a 58-turbine, 116-megawatt development by eliminating many of the turbines that had been targeted by critics.
Gamesa also imposed setbacks from known bald eagle nests, bat habitat, known sinkholes and other features in the project footprint to make it more palatable for officials.
“It seeks a balance … between competing interests,” Smeaton said of the revised proposal. “I believe that this results in a project that minimizes potential impacts, but still provides an efficient use of wind energy resources.”
Smeaton told the PUC that Gamesa, which purchased the wind project in December 2011, has spent $1.25 million in continued development over the last calendar year. That includes conducting significant environmental analysis, while also doling out roughly $200,000 to more than 100 project participants in the 25,000-acre footprint.
“Gamesa really took the time to make this a better project,” said attorney Christy Brusven, who represents the project. “(Eco)Harmony wind, instead of being defensive, has actually rolled up its sleeves and said, ‘OK, how do we make this work?'”
The PUC’s decision met with mixed reaction from Jamie Schrenzel of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“I think this is a rare example of how many turbines have been removed for environmental reasons,” Schrenzel said. “We just don’t see this level of cooperation, and we’re very appreciative. However, it still meets our level of a high-risk site.”
Issues remain before the project will break ground. Per Thursday’s approval, Gamesa must submit an avian and bat protection plan, which is considered a higher level document than what was developed earlier by EcoHarmony officials.
It’s unclear when construction might begin, but Brusven said a pre-construction hearing is targeted for August.
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