Time, as well as the patience of state regulators, appears to have run out on a 17-turbine wind-energy project in the works since 2006.
The Minnesota Department of Commerce, on July 6, recommended revoking the project site permit.
Developers of the 31.5 megawatt facility, once estimated to cost $63 million, had gotten a pair of two-year extensions to get the proposed Comfrey Wind Energy farm off the ground.
But the owners of the long-stalled project claim it’s a sign a regulatory system that helped foster Minnesota’s wind-energy developers now works against them.
“To be truthful, we just started too late. When wind (energy) was first coming out, it was easy. Now they just pile more and more studies on, and bats and bird studies, just piled on, more red tape. Typical government, more forms,” said Scott Hoek, one of 11 co-owners of the wind project.
A 10-page Energy and Environmental Review and Analysis found that Comfrey Wind Energy allegedly “violated at least two material conditions or terms of the permit.” The report claims the project’s backers neglected to update landowners on revisions to a previous permit and started construction without first notifying the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, as required.
While Hoek thinks landowners were notified, he concedes work began at the site in late December 2014 without properly advising state regulators. The developers needed to move enough dirt on the wind generation site to qualify for a crucial federal tax credit that was extended late in the year.
His frank acknowledgment underscores the extent to which federal and state government incentives have driven investors’ decisions on wind projects, big and small.
“We were supposed to have a preconstruction meeting. We had a gun to our head again, as always, in this wind thing. So, we started construction to qualify for that,” said Hoek. “Well, that’s not what you’re supposed to do with the state permit, that is true.”
Regulators also chastised ownership for relying on data contained in years’ old documents used to apply for previous permits.
“EERA staff notes that the information available on the Project is, in most cases, nearly eight years old and is not consistent with the level and specificity of information expected of more recent applicants,” the report notes.
Comfrey Wind Energy’s investors have spent an estimated $500,000 to $600,000 to meet state requirements since 2008. But a shortage of capital, declining wind energy prices and lack of a deal with a utility to buy the power led the group – for a third time – to apply for a permit extension.
“I guess my biggest complaint is, so what if it takes us time? What’s the big deal, that they don’t just extend it again? What could it possibly hurt, I guess? I don’t get it,” said Hoek.
Since Comfrey Wind Energy first applied for state approval, some 1,400 megawatts of wind generated power have gone onto the grid statewide. Utilities are well on the way to meeting Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard.
But Minnesota no longer ranks as one of the friendliest states for wind development, according to the Eden Prairie wind consultant working with Comfrey.
“The price of admission to start a project in Minnesota has increased dramatically. I think that, coupled with a lack of investment in transmission infrastructure, has hurt the little guy,” said Daniel Rustowicz, a consultant who works on wind generation in several states. “So between preliminary engineering, the various environmental studies, which include avian and bat studies, coupled with noise studies, all those things hurt the little guy.”
Unlike some wind energy proposals, Comfrey faces no significant local opposition. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will probably rule on the future of the southern Minnesota project before the end of August.
“I think we’re dead in the water, maybe. We’d have to start over with a new state permit and then that takes six months, you know how government works,” said Hoek.
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