Xcel Energy has asked a court to allow the utility to pull the plug on a 20-year deal to buy power that’s never been generated from a proposed Goodhue County wind farm that may never be built after four years of nonstop controversy.
The power play came just ahead of a make-or-break state permitting hearing on June 20, at which the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission gave New Era Wind Farm two weeks to either surrender its site permit or show the MPUC it will begin construction by Aug. 23.
“We have been working with the project developer, New Era, to see if they could in some fashion cure the defaults or difficulties they’ve had,” Jim Alders of Xcel Energy said. “They’ve been unable to do that. We’ve finally reached a point where we think the project needs to be terminated.”
Xcel contends the project delay has forced the utility to revise its plans for meeting the state mandate for renewable energy generation. The development marks another hurdle for the proposed 48-turbine wind generation project, whose opponents appear increasingly confident a project that once seemed unstoppable may now never get off the ground.
“The AWA Goodhue/New Era project is dead, this has been obvious for a while’” Kristi Rosenquist of the Coalition for Sensible Siting said. “It is unclear whether it was ever a viable project given the long list of problems that had never been resolved.”
The $180 million New Era Wind Farm in southeastern Minnesota was supposed to be up and generating 78 megawatts of wind power in 2011. Local opposition over the project’s footprint and impact on eagles and other wildlife, however, stymied progress every step of the way. The developers say $15 million has been spent to date to obtain state permits and satisfy other requirements. The original investment group led by Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens sold the project to Peter Mastic of New Era Wind Farm in 2012.
Legal documents filed by Xcel Energy in Minnesota District Court in Minneapolis on June 14 allege that New Era failed to meet several conditions of a power purchasing agreement with the utility’s Northern States Power unit. The utility acknowledges in the court filing that New Era disputes “the magnitude and quality of its contract breaches and has called into question NSP’s right to terminate the Agreements”.
Mastic previously informed state regulators that he had approached three companies in an attempt to sell the project’s power rights to recoup his investment. In an April letter to the MPUC, Mastic expressed frustration over several issues involved in the state permitting process, including environmental concerns.
“New Era has no confidence that due process for this project will ever end, nor that an Avian and Bat Protection Plan will ever be approved, however comprehensively and carefully drafted,” Mastic wrote.
On June 18, Todd Guerrero, the attorney hired this week by New Era Wind Farm, asked the MPUC for a two-week delay of the June 20 hearing in order “to become familiar with the issues” before the commission. The MPUC held the hearing as scheduled.
Opponents say this would be the first Minnesota wind generation project that failed to move forward primarily due to citizens questioning the impact and benefits of wind generation. Regardless of the outcome of the MPUC hearing or in the courts, observers acknowledge the controversy over New Era has already shaped the course of wind generation projects on the drawing board in Minnesota.
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