Despite spending $15 million seeking state permits since 2008, the 78-megawatt New Era wind project appears to finally be dead. That leaves one looming question: What has been learned or changed by this exhaustive permitting process?
The answers vary, depending on who you ask, but local critics – Goodhue Wind Truth and the Coalition for Sensible Siting – are happy to proclaim how they’ve shaped the state’s dialogue.
“(These) groups fundamentally changed how the state has looked at permitting wind projects,” said Mary Hartman, a critic focused on wildlife impacts.
“We had to prove the negative and the bald eagles were a spectacular vehicle for us to do that. We took pictures and that elevated our credibility to the point that they can believe everything we’re saying. I’ve seen changes at the DNR, Minnesota Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.”
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources published its “DNR Guidance for Commercial Wind Energy Projects” as it relates to wildlife impacts on Oct. 1, 2011, about three years after the New Era project was proposed. It’s currently drafting a second document titled “Avian and Bat Survey Protocols for Large Wind Energy Conversation Systems in Minnesota,” which is expected to be released in months.
Jamie Schrenzel, DNR’s Energy Project Planner, said last week that the only “significant study of wildlife impacts from wind (turbines) in Minnesota” was conducted in 1996-99, on old turbine technology at the Buffalo Ridge wind project.
“(Information) is honestly pretty limited,” Schrenzel said. “This is a pretty new science. I think there are some challenges around some of the uncertainties and the risk estimates. We’re just now receiving the first fatality data.”
New Era officials initially filed paperwork with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission stating zero bald eagle nests were found and no flight paths were observed through the 32,000-acre footprint. However, the DNR classified it as a moderate risk site for wildlife and the USFWS projected the 48-turbine project could harm or kill 8 to 15 bald eagles per year.
Developers responded by applying for an incidental take permit to kill bald eagles, which would allow them to avoid federal prosecution. Such a permit never has been issued by the USFWS, but wind advocacy groups are pushing for the federal agency to extend those permits from five years to 30 years.
The PUC became the permitting authority for wind projects in 2005. It recently formed a 20-member advisory panel to update its rules for site permits and certificate of need. It plans to meet monthly well into 2014 in order to “provide additional detail or streamline things as best as possible,” according to PUC spokesperson Dan Wolf.
“It’s just a general updating,” Wolf said. “It’s not in response to any specific docket. It’s an ongoing process trying to keep all this stuff updated.”
Some locals, including Goodhue County Attorney Steve Betcher, said he would like to see the PUC tackle another project to update its rules and regulations for wind.
The PUC created a docket in 2009 aimed at identifying and addressing public health and safety concerns with regard to wind projects. It contains thousands of documents. Roughly five years later, the PUC still is receiving information without attempting to update its language.
“I think we’d all come out ahead if they’d revitalize that docket and find some way to come to some conclusions there,” Betcher said. “It’d be nice if there was some review and conclusions reached so people would know what standards have evolved out of that information.”
Rural Zumbrota resident Barb Stussy, who has posted hundreds of items to that docket, was even more succinct.
“It’s a black hole,” Stussy said.
The idea of a community-based energy development also has received a significant amount of scorn based on New Era’s controversial designation in 2010 by the PUC. Reps. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, and Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, have tried to revamp the C-BED language without success, receiving support from Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, since he took office in 2012.
However, Wind on the Wires, an advocacy group, said 2010 was the last time C-BED project was built in Minnesota. Joe Sullivan, the group’s regional policy manager, said the industry has moved away from that development model and feels changing the language is unnecessary.
Kelly, though, remains steadfast in his criticism.
“It’s just been taken advantage of and manipulated,” Kelly said. “This (New Era project) was a great case for just taking that language and throwing it out. It’s just not fulfilling its intent.”
Mixed reaction from elected officials
While local critics have been quick to tout their impact on the renewable energy debate, it remains difficult to gain credibility from elected officials, who have spent years rejecting their requests for an audience.
Here’s a partial list, according to the critics:
• In 2010, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who created the state’s renewable energy mandate in 2007, declined to speak with local critics until they retained legal counsel.
• Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has declined numerous requests for audience since taking office in 2011, leading to a testy exchange last April in Rochester when critic Kristi Rosenquist questioned him during the “Meetings with Mark” town hall tour.
• U.S. Congressman Tim Walz, a Democrat, has rejected more than a dozen requests for meetings, including a hand-written note from Hartman and Rosenquist delivered on a shared flight to D.C.
• U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Democrats, declined meetings for years, but recently sent staffers to hear concerns from local critics.
• Ellen Anderson, former PUC chair and Gov. Dayton’s special energy advisor, ceased communications for months over potential legal concerns when she learned many of them had testified before her during PUC proceedings involving New Era. Anderson since has reversed course after an email was sent asking why wind advocates weren’t being held to the same legal standard.
U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican whose district includes Goodhue County, agreed to meet with 30 citizens about the wind issue in 2011. The allotted 30-minute meeting turned into two hours as Kline agreed to hear from each individual. Ever since, Kline has been among those calling for an end to federal subsidies for wind, while often citing the New Era project in his memos.
“The inertia is astonishing, especially when they’re faced with doing something politically unpopular,” Hartman said.
“You can tell this is very political,” said Marie McNamara, of Goodhue Wind Truth. “It’s like a Mexican standoff. But we keep coming back.”
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