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Company eyes Black Hawk County wind farm

WATERLOO – An energy company is working in southern Black Hawk County to develop what would be the county’s first wind farm.

RPM Access is actively securing landowner permission, gathering technical data and has applied for a power grid interconnection agreement for a new 70 megawatt facility generally between U.S. Highway 63 and Iowa Highway 21 south of Waterloo.

While some property owners are preparing to fight the prospect of up to 35 wind turbines in their backyard, company officials said they’re getting a positive response from landowners who would host what they’re calling the Washburn Wind Farm.

Plans detailing the exact size, number and location of the turbines and related infrastructure may not be available until next summer, said RMPA’s Felix Friedman.

“The design still hasn’t happened yet,” Friedman said. “We don’t know where the turbines are going to be, so we don’t know who the neighbors are going to be.

“But it’s a great location because of its proximity to Waterloo,” he added. “Physically, that power would be flowing into Waterloo and will be consumed by users right there.”

The De Soto-based company has developed over 1,000 megawatts of wind generation projects in Iowa since 2000, selling more than half of them to MidAmerican Energy Co., including the nearby 138 megawatt Wellsburg Wind Farm in Grundy County.

RPMA also owns and operates the 41 megawatt Elk Wind Farm in Delaware County, 36 megawatt Hawkeye Wind Farm in Fayette County and 50 megawatt Rippey Wind Farm in Greene County.

The company has applied to Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which oversees the power grid in 15 states and part of Canada, for permission to connect a 70 megawatt generation facility in Black Hawk County. Friedman expects MISO approval next summer.

Meanwhile, RPMA and its consultants are working on environmental and cultural studies in the project area; conducting geotechnical surveys and collecting wind data; and mapping out underground utilities, roads, residences and other landmarks for turbine setbacks and other location restrictions.

Those factors will be used to design the project before RPMA can apply to the county for necessary special permits. Even with that approval, the company would need to find buyers and investors before any construction would take place.

“You don’t have anything to sell unless you’re in the (MISO) queue with land under contract and wind data being collected at the site,” Friedman said.

While RPMA said it has not reached agreements for any utility to buy the Washburn Wind Farm, it may find a willing partner in MidAmerican Energy.

MidAmerican received Iowa Utilities Boad approval Aug. 26 for its plans to invest $3.6 billion to develop 2 gigawatts of wind power over the next three years. The Wind XI project would utilize 1,000 turbines at multiple sites across the state, with some of those sites yet to be determined.

RPMA has held four informational meetings to date with property owners who are being asked to lease land voluntarily for the Washburn Wind Farm. No eminent domain would be involved.

But several potential neighbors have been voicing opposition to the development to the county Board of Supervisors, including three residents who spoke about the project during an Oct. 25 board meeting.

“We as property owners have not been notified of this proposal,” said Deb Nieman. “Since we only own an acreage and not the farm around us we are left in the dark.”

RMPA is offering lease payments to landowners and additional payments to surrounding property owners within a certain distance of the turbines.

“Those who aren’t exactly a half mile from them but still get the full view and effects get nothing,” Nieman said. “But we ourselves could care less about the money.”

Opponents worry the large turbines would hurt their property values; kill bats and birds, including eagles spotted in the area; throw ice from the blades; and even cause human health issues due to low-frequency noise, motion and shadow flicker.

“Black Hawk County is prime agricultural ground,” Nieman added. “Wind turbines should be on ground that is not productive.”

Rick Green, who operates a helicopter crop dusting service and farms in the area, said the towers could hurt his business.

“If this windmill farm goes through I’m looking at $5,000 per machine increase in my (insurance) premium,” Green said. “It’s going to cause me to have to raise my rates. Plus, as a human being, I’m not looking forward to seeing flashing lights every evening.”

RPMA officials said the company has its own biologist on staff and had adjusted projects to mitigate the impact on wildlife, even curtailing turbine operations at certain times when bats are most active. Similar curtailments are made to accommodate crop-dusting.

They said there are no scientific studies linking wind turbines to human health effects, contending those impacts would be documented by now given 30 percent of the power generated in Iowa today comes from wind.

“We’re environmentalists ourselves because we’re in the wind business and we think clean energy is good,” Friedman said. “Other energy sources are much more harmful to human health and the environment, whether it’s coal or gas or nuclear.”

RPMA’s Kevin Lehs, who is working to sign up landowners for the Washburn Wind Farm, said the company tries to limit the amount of farm land used for it’s project and noted the lease payments provide a secure source of income for farmers that isn’t affected by flood or drought.

“We seek to put these things on fencelines if we can,” said Lehs, noting each turbine takes up about three-fourths of an acre. “I farm myself, so I’m sensitive to those issues too.”

RPMA’s $80 million, 41 megawatt Elk Wind Farm, for example, has 17 turbines and took just 13 acres of land out of production, Lehs said. The project has paid $1.25 million in landowner payments since it opened five years ago.

Company officials said local governments and the economy reap enormous benefits from any lost ag land.

“Lots of times we’re the biggest property taxpayer in the county,” said RPMA’s Kirk Kraft. “Our Wellsburg project will be 10 percent of the taxable value in Grundy County when it’s fully on board.”

Kraft said a single wind turbine will generate $25,000 to $40,000 in county and school property taxes each year depending on the size of the machine and the local property tax rates.

Friedman said wind has already proven to be an economic development tool, as companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft have located in Iowa due to those corporation’s commitment to meeting their large power demands with renewable energy.

Facebook officials said access to wind energy was a key reason the social media giant chose to build a $300 million data center, which opened in Altoona in 2014 and is preparing for its third expansion.

Facebook’s Altoona campus is powered by the Wellsburg Wind Farm developed by RPMA and sold to MidAmerican Energy.

The Board of Supervisors encouraged wind farms to locate in Black Hawk County when members voted in April 2015 at RPMA’s urging to adopt an ordinance granting property tax breaks for turbines. Iowa law allows counties to initially tax projects at 30 percent of their value, which is phased in to the full amount over six years.

Supervisor Linda Laylin said her counterparts in Grundy County have given RPMA high marks based on the Wellsburg project.

But the Board of Supervisors has little say about whether the Washburn Wind Farm gets approved.

County zoning regulations state wind generation projects require a special permit and not a zoning change. The appointed county Board of Adjustment determines whether to approve special permits.

The Black Hawk County Board of Adjustment rejected the only wind project to come before it to date. A request from Optimum Renewables to erect three towers near Dunkerton drew heavy opposition in August 2015 before the board voted unanimously to reject it.

Optimum Renewables later build the towers in Fayette County near Fairbank, but the project is now the subject of an ongoing legal battle.