BLUE EARTH – The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has voted not to revoke or suspend the permit for Big Blue Wind Farm in Faribault County, but the operation must meet certain conditions.
The 36-megawatt wind farm consists of 18 turbines and is located in Jo Daviess Township.
In 2017, farmer Dan Moore of Faribault County filed a series of complaints to the PUC, mainly concerning “jet noise” coming from the turbines.
On Jan. 10, a letter was sent from the PUC to Big Blue Wind Farm and Fagen Engineering in response to possible site permit violations, including not filing noise monitoring results, and whether monitoring results from July 2017 indicated the noise coming from the turbines exceeded standards set by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. According to the letter, a violation of the site permit condition could lead to revocation or suspension of the site permit.
This week, the commission reviewed three issues regarding Big Blue Wind Farm: whether it violated the site permit condition regarding noise compliance, and whether it made false statements regarding noise protocols and studies; whether Big Blue knowingly made false statements regarding pre-construction noise modeling of the wind turbines; and whether Big Blue’s complaint reporting process should be modified.
Moore spoke to the PUC, requesting that it revoke Big Blue’s site permit.
“I urge the commission to make the decent, correct and relevant decision to send a message to all of the wind farm developers and all of the solar farm developers and anyone else who submits applications, that studies matter and modeling matters,” he said.
Louise Miltich, planner principal for Minnesota Department of Commerce, gave an overview of the possible site permit violations. She said that since she did not work on the project originally in 2011, she can only make an assessment based on the files available. When the process to gain a site permit began, Miltich said, a protocol was submitted but her department found it did not meet requirements. The department then asked for the protocol to be revised and resubmitted, with the next step bringing the protocol to the commission for approval. According to Miltich, that step did not appear to have happened.
Miltich said an approved protocol is necessary to start monitoring, which helps determine where wind turbines should be placed and what the post-construction noise levels will be. Miltich said the files pertaining to this process do not indicate whether more information was requested. Because the process seemed to stop with an inadequate protocol, that part of the permit has not been met, and new monitoring has to occur, Miltich said.
Ron Fagen, president of Big Blue Wind Farm, said Fagen, Inc. got involved in Big Blue after the second developer, Exergy, took possession of it from the original developer, Windfinity. The company had agreed to loan funds to the developer for the wind farm on a short-term basis and build the wind farm based on the layout and placement of the turbines provided by the developer. Fagen said that after it became apparent that Exergy could not fulfill its financial obligations to the project, he felt as though Fagen, Inc. should honor the obligations left by Exergy.
Attorney Jim Bertrand, representing Big Blue, said Exergy, the second developer of the project, had filed everything with the application for the permit. At the time Fagen, Inc. took over the project in 2012, it was not aware of the issues that had occurred in the permit process.
“The Fagens relied on that as all accurate and satisfactory to the commission,” Bertrand said.
Bertrand also noted that because this is the company’s first wind development, it has never been through a permitting process and was not aware of what was necessary, so it relied on what Exergy had done in the permit process. Bertrand said they were not aware until recently that the necessary data did not exist.
After hearing both sides and the information available, Public Utility Commissioner Dan Lipschultz moved not to revoke or suspend the permit, but to require Big Blue to go through the necessary steps to prove compliance.
“Things didn’t go the way they should have in 2011 when this permit was applied for and granted,” Lipschultz said. “No one who was around then is around now. A different developer, the folks at the department are different, and none of the commissioners here were around then. So all we can do as regulators is look forward and try to make this right. And it sounds like, and this is a big deal to me coming here, it sounds like the company wants to make this right. They’re ready to do it, they’re sincere about that and that helps inform my judgement and steers me away from going right to a procedure that would lead potentially to suspension.”
With support from the other commissioners, the motion passed unanimously.
Big Blue will now have to file a noise modeling of the installed wind turbines that indicates projected compliance with MPCA noise standards within 30 days of order, including monitoring during periods of curtailment; an on/off monitoring protocol within 60 days of order; and a completed on/off noise monitoring study within nine months of the order. The modeling, protocols or monitoring will be completed by a third-party consultant approved by the Minnesota Department of Commerce and PUC staff.
Finally, PUC staff will have to file revised complaint procedures for Big Blue, and require Big Blue to mail notice of the revised procedures to affected landowners and local governmental units, followed by filing an affidavit with the PUC within 30 days of the mailing.
Fagen says Big Blue is committed to correcting any compliance or regulatory concerns of the commission.
“Big Blue takes full responsibility for its actions,” Fagen said. “We will do everything we can to make this right, to meet our regulatory obligations and to satisfy the concerns of the commission.”