FAIRMONT – A quartet of representatives from Tradewind Energy recently visited the Fairmont Exchange Club to share information about the Fourmile Wind Project proposed for Jackson and Martin counties.
Over the past several months, Tradewind agents have met with more than a dozen residential, civic and governmental groups to explain the wind farm project, which would generate $1.5 million annually in landowner lease payments and $1.2 million annual in taxes, mostly in Martin County.
“We have a pretty strong track record,” Christina Yagjian, senior development manager, said in introducing Tradewind Energy, based in Lenexa, Kan. “We’re one of the most successful wind and solar developers in the United States. We have a long-term partnership with Enel Green Power North America. They have purchased the majority of the projects that we develop, typically just before construction.”
Selecting and securing a project site is a multi-year, multi-phase process. Teams of analysts evaluate areas, searching for optimal places for renewable energy projects.
“They look at migratory bird patterns. They look at energy prices. They look at what different permitting processes are. They look at transmission lines, and they identified Jackson and Martin counties as possible places to site a wind facility,” Yagjian said.
The general project boundary straddles the Jackson-Martin county line, with the total project footprint encompassing about 60,000 acres that would support a maximum of 150 wind turbines.
Once a possible project site is identified, a multi-phase environmental impact study begins.
“It starts very early on and is very critical to a project,” Yagjian said.
The Fourmile environmental study began last year with an eagle survey. Helicopters are used for an overhead view of the area, and high resolution photographs are taken to identify nests to determine if eagles are using the nests and if eggs are present. Biologists do ground studies, using binoculars to track migrating bird patterns. There are cultural studies that search for relics, such as arrowheads.
“It is a two-year long process,” Yagjian said.
Amber Zuhlke, director of environmental studies and permitting with Tradewind Energy, said each of the company’s projects includes a bird and bat conservation strategy.
“This outlines everything we do before the construction phase, things we do during construction and post construction to address any kind of impact to birds and wildlife,” Zuhlke said. “In every one of our projects, we know there will be a minimum of two years of pre-construction bird and eagle surveys. We also do two years of pre-construction general bird surveys focused on migration seasons, both spring and fall. There’s a lot of different things we factor in.”
The environmental study for Fourmile Wind Project began last year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources monitor the study and must approve the project, and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission also reviews the project.
“Three different governmental bodies take a look at these issues before you can put a shovel in the ground, and they monitor you after the project is completed,” said Howard Krueger who, with Nate Bauer, has been in the area for the past 15 months laying groundwork for the project.
Once the environmental study is complete, the next step is obtaining state permits, a process that takes about 18 months. Tradewind anticipates completing the permitting process by mid 2020.
“The earliest the project would come online would be 2021, but reality is that it would be closer to 2022,” Yagjian said.
Wind energy projects are not eligible for eminent domain so land use must be secured through lease agreements with landowners. Krueger said Tradewind negotiates long-term leases with annual payments and built-in increases with landowners, both those on whose property the turbines will be built as well as those in buffer zones.
“We tend to hold the line that everybody gets paid the same. Nobody is going to get a sweetheart deal,” Krueger said. “For the most part, it pays $55 an acre, even if you have nothing on your land.”
Prior to the construction phase, Tradewind works with county management on a road improvement plan and also focuses on drainage issues. Krueger said a project near Dexter culminated with three new bridges and 65 miles of roads rebuilt within the project area. He added that the company bonds for drainage and road work.
Noise levels of the turbines have become a contentious issue with a Faribault County wind farm, but Krueger said that Tradewind Energy is cognizant of the turbine noise.
“Our goal is to be at 45 decibels, and 45 decibels would be the sound of a brand new refrigerator running,” he said. “Most of the time, especially in the summer and fall, the ambient noise level from the wind passing through crops and trees is much greater than the wind turbines themselves, but it’s still an issue we are very concerned about.”
Selecting a site and satisfying all the requirements to obtain a state permit is costly.
“Environmental studies alone will probably $1.5 million,” Zuhlke said. “Just the state permitting process costs a couple hundred thousand dollars. You’re probably close to $10 million just for developing costs.”
One concern residents often have is being blanketed by clusters of turbines, but this shouldn’t be an issue with the Fourmile development. A senior development official from Tradewind Energy told the Martin County Planning Commission in November that the project will only take 1 percent to 2 percent of the impacted area out of service, including all land for roads and turbine foundations.
“We’ve got 60,000 acres in the boundary, and there are many different ways within that boundary that we can set the array (of turbines) to reach our 300-megawatt target.”
“It would be spread over a very large area,” Krueger said. “You won’t get the feel that there are a lot of turbines around because they’re spread out over a greater distance.”
The Tradewind team will continue speaking to small groups in the area. As part of the state permitting process, the Minnesota PUC will host three public meetings in the impacted area to give residents and landowners, as well as Tradewind experts, an opportunity to give testimony about the project.
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