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Prevailing Winds not giving up on Avon proposal

TYNDALL – The company behind a proposed wind farm near Avon has not given up on the project, which it believes is supported by a “silent majority.”

Roland Jurgens, project manager for Prevailing Winds, the Dell Rapids-based company hoping to build an 850,000-megawatt hours (Mwh) wind farm north of Avon, met with the Bon Homme County Zoning Board and community members Monday in Tyndall at the board’s request to give an update on the project.

“We’re re-evaluating,” Jurgens said. “We hope that we can build it, but there’s no guarantees.”

On Sept. 13, the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission accepted a request from Prevailing Winds to withdraw its application to build the system, which allows the company to apply again later.

The project has faced stern opposition from community members, who have cited a variety of issues like aesthetics, false promises about funding, a lack of local control and health concerns regarding the turbines’ vibrations.

But Jurgens said “a silent majority” supports the project, as determined by the number of people wearing “I heart wind” stickers at a community meeting last month in Avon, and he told the zoning board the company did not want to create a divide in the community.

If the project moves forward, it may have a different appearance. Turbine technology continues to improve, Jurgens said, so any turbines built now may have larger blades, but roughly 80 turbines would be required to produce the same amount of energy as the originally planned 100-plus turbines.

As the blades increase in size, the tower bases stay roughly the same size at between 17 and 19 feet in diameter, so the amount of physical land affected would fall by about 10 acres to 40 or 50 acres, Jurgens said. The total area set aside for the project, however, would remain unchanged, as larger blades require more space between turbines. The $300 million price tag is also expected to remain.

The proposed wind farm is expected to produce 850,000 Mwh of energy per year – the same amount produced by Bon Homme Yankton Electric, Jurgens said – and any unused energy could be sold to other areas. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, the average American home used 10.932 Mwh in 2014.

Jurgens said wind energy is a good choice for energy companies hoping to diversify to mitigate the risk of one resource rising drastically in price. Jurgens said the price of natural gas has dropped rapidly this year, which has prompted some companies to renovate or close coal plants entirely.

But wind energy is as cheap or cheaper, Jurgens said, and because the price of natural gas could climb again in the near future, Prevailing Winds will continue “looking at options” for the wind farm, as the price of wind energy is secured on a 20-year power purchase agreement.

Concern for schools

The members of the zoning board asked several questions about the project, including how the project would benefit the local school system, citing the struggles of the Tripp-Delmont School District despite the construction of the Beethoven Wind Farm in 2015 that was supposed to provide money to the district.

Tripp Mayor Victor Olson has blamed Senate Bill 131 for the district’s financial situation, which raised teacher pay but also altered the funding formula for schools, meaning Tripp-Delmont did not receive the full benefit from the wind farm that was expected.

But while Jurgens said the new funding formula hurt Tripp-Delmont because of the district’s declining enrollment, he said schools near the Prevailing Winds project will receive more funding if the farm is built because of the new formula. Some of the money generated by the project can go to schools as “bonus money,” Jurgens said, which will not affect the funding provided by the state.

“It’s not actually a negative thing,” Jurgens said. “It’s just there’s some people out there trying to turn it into something negative.”

Jurgens also emphasized the local control over the project, saying major decisions for Prevailing Winds are made by a board of governors, made up of eight people from around the region, including Avon, Tripp, Tyndall, Menno and Lesterville.

Jurgens will meet with the Bon Homme County Commission on Tuesday as a courtesy to answer any questions the commissioners have, he said, but the project can’t move forward until Prevailing Winds gets conditional use permits from Bon Homme County and building permits from both Bon Homme and Charles Mix.

Still, Jurgens said the company will work to “dispel some of the rumors” and examine all factors surrounding the project and make the best decision for business.

“If it’s not sound business, we’re not going to build it,” Jurgens said. “Despite what the opposition says, these things do not run on tax credits. They run on sound business decisions.”