O’Brien County approves Wind Farm Building Permit; Over 200 turbines proposed in $1.9 billion MidAmerican project
PRIMGHAR – More than 100 people crowded into the O’Brien County Court House in Primghar on Tuesday, August 20, 2013 to watch economic development in O’Brien County turn down an entirely new path. The last time a directional turn happened of this magnitude was when the Board approved the Hartley ethanol plant construction permit.
At issue at the O’Brien County Board of Supervisors meeting was Invenergy’s 500 megawatt (MW) Highland Township Wind Energy construction permit application that Invenergy filed in late July.
In the days prior to the construction permit hearing, MidAmerican Energy won Iowa Utilities Board approval on August 12, 2013 for their proposal to add 1,050 MW of new wind energy generation. It’s a $1.9 billion investment, the largest investment in Iowa history.
In an August 22 press release, MidAmerican said, “The Company continues working with county officials and landowners and has secured development and interconnection rights for the wind farm sites, which are planned to be located in Grundy, Madison, Marshall, O’Brien and Webster Counties. Construction is expected to begin in September 2013, and all projects are planned for completion prior to the end of 2015.”
Some in the county speculated that MidAmerican Energy would eventually own the Highland wind farm. Now, it was official.
*Calling the meeting to order
Board of Supervisors Chairman Tom Farnsworth opened the meeting prior to the formal public hearing. Because the supervisors were at the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) Rock Island Clean Line informational meeting in Hartley from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., the hearing in Primghar convened at noon. The Board wanted to support Rock Island with their proposed high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission line.
All Board members were present, along with county auditor Barb Rohwer. Steve Hallgren with the Northwest Iowa Planning and Development Commission in Spencer was also present.
Farnsworth wanted those in attendance to ask questions pertaining to anything about the wind farm. Along with the supervisors, questions were answered by Invenergy project manager Kevin Parzyck and project developer Greg Leuchtmann. Several officials with MidAmerican Energy’s Wind Energy Division, led by Adam Wright VP Wind Energy Generation and Development, answered numerous questions.
The Q & A session would last 43 minutes. At 36 minutes into the session, Center Township landowner Jerry Van Beek asked, “As board of supervisors, what is your feeling of what the constituents that you represent feel? Are your constituents in favor, neutral or unfavorable? Will that come into play as you decide your vote? I guess the first question is; how does everybody in this room feel?”
Farnsworth replied, “I’ll explain what my feelings are. I’m in favor of it.”
“I know that,” Van Beek said. “But, what about your constituents: because that is who you are working for.”
Farnsworth continued, “Most of the people. I realize there are some out there that are not. But I would say the majority of them are for it, just because of what it’s going to do for our county.
“I mean, we’re always looking at roads, we’re looking at bridges and we’re looking at how the governor wants to reduce property taxes on some businesses. That will hit us in a couple of years. We’ll have that coming right at us. The thing that’s going to happen is these types of projects are going to counter what’s coming to O’Brien County.
“If we don’t have that, if we don’t have these windmills, if we don’t have Clean Line, we’re in a lot of trouble. This is going to offset lower funding for our schools. It’s going to help with your roads, as Tom Snyder the engineer can attest. We’re falling behind on our bridges; it’s in the news all the time. This will help.
“So when we’re looking at it, all that’s true. But there are some that may not like it. But in the long run, it’s good for O’Brien County. That’s my feeling. I don’t know where the others are.”
Supervisor Dan Friedrichsen responded to Van Beek’s questions, and said, “I’m open to callers almost all the time. The feedback I’ve had is you can break it down a little bit to age of the constituent and those with school-age children. Those I’ve talked too are absolutely, positively for it. Because they know what it’s going to mean for our schools, too.
“As for business owners, they know there’s going to be a lot of activity. Now, I know there are those that want to look out the window and not see a windmill. I can understand that. When I put all of what I’ve heard from my constituents together, the majority are for it. I can tell you that.
“I’ve heard those that are against it, too. But, if we look at it from the perspective of an economic development standpoint, it’s absolutely, positively good for our county.”
Addressing Van Beek’s point, Supervisor Jim DeBoom said, “I’ve had people call me expressing negative views toward the project. But, I’ve found out they have a lot of questions too. Once they get the questions answered they are looking for, they are pretty positive. That’s what I can tell you from my area.”
Forty-three minutes into the Q & A, Farnsworth asked, “Are there any other questions? If not, I think we’ll have a motion to close the hearing.”
DeBoom said, “I so move.”
Friederichsen said, “I second it.”
The motion carried.
*Opening the Wind Farm Construction Permit Public Hearing
Farnsworth then called upon Steve Hallgren to introduce himself and talk about the O’Brien County Wind Energy Device Ordinance, the actual building permit language and the conditions attached to the permit.
Hallgren said, “I’m the planning director with the Northwest Iowa Planning and Development Commission. O’Brien County hired our agency to assist in doing the review of the permit to ensure compliance with the ordinance. The supervisors have three choices for coming to a decision. The Board can either approve the permit as presented, approve the permit with conditions, or the Board could deny the permit and provide reasons for the denial.”
Hallgren then moved into discussing the Building Permit. One sentence in the Building Permit says, “Additional or new wind energy structures or turbines, beyond the 235 sites and 218 turbines approved by this permit, shall require either an amendment to this permit or a new application as determined by the O’Brien County Board of Supervisors and set forth in the O’Brien County Wind Energy Device Ordinance.”
Lastly, Hallgren reviewed the conditions attached to the permit. The last condition says, “If more than 10% of the original 235 wind turbine sites are proposed for a change in location from the original permit application, then such changes for the entire wind energy project shall be subject to a new Building Permit, and the original Building Permit shall be revoked.”
This paragraph then prompted a discussion about the 10% figure.
“What would require a new application, if enough windmill site changes were needed?” Hallgren asked. “You don’t want to get to a point where you’re changing the configuration of the wind farm. I added language here saying that if more than 10 % of the original 235 turbine sites in the proposal were changed, that would constitute writing a new application. Does that make sense?”
Leuchtmann said, “The concern we have is that we work with landowners. We do feel it should be a higher figure because it accommodates the landowners. We like what’s here. As we work with landowners, we want to accommodate their needs.”
“And that’s fair,” said Hallgren. “That’s another human concept factored in. The supervisors are the ones who will ultimately need to change this. We agreed earlier that any site changes would occur within the final boundary of what your have now. Would you suggest that you might go outside the current boundary for any additional sites?”
“You know, I think that would be an isolated incident,” Leuchtmann said. “That I don’t anticipate. In my mind, this is the wind farm boundary that we are working with right now. If we run into a situation, we might go a little further north.”
Invenergy’s Kevin Parzyck added, “I think the boundaries are reasonable.”
“Would you be more comfortable if 25% of the original 235 would constitute the filing of a new application?” asked Hallgren.
“Yes,” said Leuchtmann.
“Is that something the Board of Supervisors would be comfortable with?” Hallgren asked.
“That’s fine,” said Farnsworth.
Hallgren said, “From what I’m hearing, and just reviewing the permit conditions, it sounds like you have met the requirements. The only changes I’d recommend today would be in Part 7. And I would change it from 10% to 25%. I’d be glad to entertain any questions from the Board.”
Farnsworth asked, “So, do we need to put the condition in there that it’s 25%?
“Yes,” said Hallgren.
“Do we approve the permit with conditions of changing the 10% to 25%?” Farnsworth asked.
“Correct,” Hallgren answered.
“I’ll entertain a motion to approve,” said Farnsworth. That motion was offered and seconded. “Okay, so we have a motion from Jim DeBoom and seconded by John Steensma to approve the Building Permit to Highland Wind Energy Project and to authorize the Chair to sign the permit with conditions,” Rohwer said.
“Correct,” said Farnsworth. “Okay. Let’s have the roll call vote. Motion passed with all Ayes,” said Farnsworth.
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