ST. PAUL – After nearly five years in the permitting process, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission might have finally pulled the plug on the controversial New Era wind project.
After lengthy discussion during Thursday’s PUC hearing – including a few testy exchanges between commissioners and New Era attorney Todd Guerrero – the PUC unanimously approved five motions that will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the project to move forward in its current form.
“I think this is definitely a David and Goliath story,” said rural Goodhue farmer Ann Buck, one of the project’s critics, who have spent six figures battling the project over health, environmental and aesthetic concerns. “But I don’t think it was one rock that got the giant. It was many over the last four, five years.”
“The project’s finished, and it has been for awhile,” said Marie McNamara, of Goodhue Wind Truth. “They didn’t extend the in-service date, and the rest is just housecleaning.”
Despite spending more than $15 million in an unprecedented permitting process, New Era’s CEO Peter Mastic may be back to square one.
“To me, it’s time to pull the plug,” PUC chairwoman Beverly Jones Heydinger said during the debate.
The approved motions include:
• New Era violated Minnesota’s transfer provision law when Peter Mastic purchased the project from Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens in 2012, which prohibits the transfer of power purchase agreements previously approved with Xcel Energy. It’s unclear how this ruling will affect Xcel’s recent lawsuit against New Era that seeks to end its PPA agreements and collect monetary damages.
• New Era’s request to extend the project’s Certificate of Need was denied because Mastic’s group failed to show it was prepared to move forward, which includes a failure to specify an in-service date.
• New Era has 14 days when the PUC’s written order is released to surrender its Site Permit or show cause that it intends to begin construction by Aug. 23. The applicant must also demonstrate it is able to commence construction by that date, which appears to be impossible.
In other rulings, the PUC requested “a more comprehensive response” to the investigation of public claims in the project area and a summary of the March 27 site visit. Steve Betcher, Goodhue County attorney, also urged the commission to re-examine the project’s status as a community-based energy development (C-BED), but the PUC chose to avoid that issue.
Guerrero was the lone New Era proponent to attend Thursday’s meeting. Mastic was busy out-of-state, he said, so it remains unclear what the future holds for the 78-megawatt project sited near Zumbrota.
“Obviously, it’s not good … but I don’t know what the client plans to do, to be honest with you,” Guerrero said afterward. “I guess Mr. Mastic will have to review his options and has some decisions to make.”
Thursday’s meeting got off to an unusual start. Due to Xcel’s lawsuit against New Era, Fredrikson & Byron was forced to withdraw as New Era’s counsel; it also represents Xcel.
Mastic replaced longtime legal counsel Christine Brusven on Monday with Guerrero, who almost immediately requested a two-week delay to familiarize himself with the extensive record. PUC staff responded by keeping the issue on the agenda, and commissioners denied the same request from Guerrero on Thursday morning after a drawn-out plea.
That led to a few heated responses – including one that suggests New Era might choose to challenge the PUC ruling in the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
“Given the history of this project, more information should have been provided and I cannot explain why it wasn’t,” Guerrero told the commission. “If I was in your shoes, I’d show the same level of consternation.
“At the end of the day, your decision will be reviewed on the statute and the rules.”
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