HETTINGER – Compared to a feisty and lively hearing in front of the local zoning board, a formal hearing Thursday on a proposed wind energy project near Hettinger was quietly decorous.
The earlier opposition was muted at the hearing, unlike at the Adams County Zoning Board hearing earlier this month when several landowners made a case that the visual, humming and flickering effects of the mammoth turbines will harm their quality of life and property values.
Local zoning was approved for Thunder Spirit Wind Energy’s 150-megawatt project and 75 towers, but the Public Service Commission must still OK the project because of its size and scope. About 30 people attended the hearing.
It’ll be weeks before the PSC makes any determination. Project developer Dan Albano said the project is still waiting for a power agreement with an unnamed buyer, though he seemed confident one would sign by the end of October.
PSC chairman Brian Kalk had questions about that lack of a purchase agreement and what could happen if Thunder Spirit had to dump the wind energy into the grid without an agreement.
“Nobody’s going to get paid the way they think they’re going to get paid, right?” Kalk said.
The company says it will pay out $875,000 in annual tower leases to landowners and another $650,000 in annual property taxes, though Albano told the commission the project might be built in phases depending on the purchase agreement.
The wind project will be located two miles northwest of Hettinger in crop and rocky-topped pasture land over a 42-square-mile area, primarily in Duck Creek Township.
Albano said Thunder Spirit factored in half-mile setbacks from three sage grouse leks in the project area and a two-mile buffer from a golden eagle nest.
He said the company will work with federal wildlife officials on an eagle conservation plan and will make detailed counts of how many birds and bats are killed when the turbines are operating.
He also said there’s a problem with the turbines interfering in the airspace for a proposed expansion of the Hettinger airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration said turbines will interfere with needed circling space, but Albano said his company is trying to get that standard relaxed because the expansion is a turf runway and not likely to be used by large airplanes.
He told the PSC the company needs to invest 5 percent of the project cost of $300 million in capital expenditures to qualify for federal production tax credit this year. Albano said company could do that by placing turbine order this fall and has to show ongoing evidence of construction.
Commissioner Randy Christmann asked Albano whether the company, in a community spirit effort, offered affected landowners a one-time payment based on the reality that their viewshed will change forever.
Albano said those payments are more common where there’s higher population density and more severe impact.
“It’s a good idea, but not one that we pursued in this area,” Albano said.
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