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Public Utilities Commission must give OK to Bon Homme area wind farm

AVON – A proposed wind farm in southeast South Dakota would require Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approval because of its larger generation capacity, a state official says.

Prevailing Winds project manager Roland Jurgens has provided the Bon Homme County Commission with an update on the proposed project. The wind farm would be located in the general vicinity of the current Beethoven wind farm operating in Charles Mix, Hutchinson and Bon Homme counties.

Jurgens indicated the proposed wind farm would generate at least 100 megawatts of power.

Any wind project with a nameplate capacity of more than 100 megawatts would first need state approval, PUC chairman Chris Nelson told the Press & Dakotan.

“The (nearby) Beethoven project didn’t have to come to the PUC because it produced a total of 80 megawatts,” he said. “My understanding is that this Prevailing Winds project is more than what currently exists in the Beethoven project. The plan is for Prevailing Winds to produce more than 100 megawatts.”

Whereas Bon Homme County officials dealt directly with the Beethoven project, the proposed larger wind farm must first receive state approval, Nelson said.

“State statute addresses any energy conversion facility which creates electricity, whether it’s wind, solar, oil or natural gas,” he said. “If it creates 100 megawatts or larger, the organizer of that project has to come to the PUC and obtain a siting permit.”

Jurgens told the Bon Homme County commissioners that the proposed wind farm is prepared to go through the state process, according to an article in the Tyndall Tribune & Register, Springfield Times and Scotland Journal weekly newspapers.

The wind farm has met with the PUC and will go through the permitting process with the PUC before applying to Bon Homme County for any permits, according to the weekly papers’ report.

If the PUC gives its approval, the Prevailing Winds officials would come to the Bon Homme County commissioners for their review before approving the project to be built in the county, Jurgens said in the article.

Nelson told the Press & Dakotan that, as of late Friday afternoon, the PUC had not received any formal application on the Prevailing Winds project.

The current and proposed wind farms have generated a variety of responses. The reactions have ranged from the Bon Homme County Democrats’ resolution supporting wind energy projects to strong objections to the wind projects from area residents – including wind farm neighbor Gregg Hubner – on a number of grounds.

Under state law, the PUC commissioners cannot comment on a specific project which may become a docket item requiring their action, Nelson said. However, he could talk about the application process that such a project would follow.

“For wind projects, we must have our ruling posted within six months,” he said. “It’s different for pipeline projects and large electric transmission lines. The law gives us a year to deal with those utilities. The legislation with the wind project is different. We move them along faster.”

The applicant will hold discussions with the PUC staff, which includes attorneys and analysts, Nelson said. Outside individuals and groups can choose to become intervenors and a legal party to the process.

Once a permit application is filed, the PUC will hold a public input meeting in the affected area, Nelson said. Such an area can vary greatly depending on the utility, he said.

“Most recently, we had hearings with the Dakota Pipeline. We held hearings in Ipswich, Redfield, Iroquois and Sioux Falls,” he said. “A wind project is more of a defined area. At that meeting, the developer will say, here is our plan, and we open it up to the floor and we let whoever wants to, to tell us their thoughts. It might be positive or negative.”

The public meetings are more informal in nature, Nelson said. They perform a valuable role for the PUC, he said.

“It’s important for us as commissioners,” he said. “We learn what the folks are concerned about, meaning, what do we need to be concerned about?”

In addition, the PUC will take written comments at any point in the process once it becomes a docket item, Nelson said. The individual or group can’t communicate privately with the PUC commissioners, and the written comments become part of the public record available to all parties.

A final hearing will be held at the state capitol in Pierre, Nelson said. The PUC will look at a number of factors in determining whether to issue a permit. The request needs approval from two of the three commissioners.

“We make sure the project won’t hurt the health and economic development of the people of the area, those kinds of things,” he said.

The PUC commissioners hold three options in making its decision, Nelson said.

“We can grant the permit as requested, we can deny the permit as requested, or we can grant it with certain conditions, where we say, if you build the project, here are the things you have to comply with,” he said.

“What we can’t do, we can’t give you the permit but say, you have to reconfigure your wind farm in a different way or change where you put it. We can’t mandate on those issues.”

The PUC also can’t reject a permit application strictly for reasons commonly referred to as “NIMBY” – Not In My Back Yard – where neighbors don’t want a project, Nelson said.

“You have to present evidence that this (proposed project) will violate one of the critical state laws,” he said.

The PUC decision can be appealed to the circuit court and, ultimately, to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

The frequency of wind projects depends on factors such as profitability and government policy, Nelson said.

“Wind projects are, to some extent, ebb and flow, particularly whether or not the federal production tax credit is available,” he said.

For Nelson, acting on a wind farm permit would be a new experience.

“In the four years I have been on the commission, the PUC hasn’t dealt with a single one when it comes to wind farms,” he said.

“There have been a few smaller projects, and we didn’t deal with them. There have been a few bigger projects, but they were all done before I came on the commission.”

For more information, visit the PUC website at puc.sd.gov.