An administrative law judge ruled Monday the Freeborn Wind Farm has failed to demonstrate that its planned 200-megawatt operation in southeast Freeborn County and north Iowa meets Minnesota noise standards.
Administrative Law Judge LauraSue Schlatter issued the findings in a 171-page report, which will serve as a recommendation to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, the decision-making body for final permit approval.
“Therefore, the administrative law judge respectfully recommends that the commission either deny Freeborn Wind’s application for a site permit, or in the alternative, provide Freeborn Wind with a period of time to submit a plan demonstrating how it will comply with Minnesota’s noise standards at all times throughout the footprint of the Freeborn Wind project,” the report states.
Freeborn Wind is an affiliate of Invenergy LLC, a Chicago-based large-scale energy developer tasked with developing, designing and permitting the project. Xcel Energy will then purchase the ownership interest in Freeborn Wind following permitting and prior to construction and will construct, own and operate the project.
In a statement Tuesday, Invenergy Senior Manager for Project Development Dan Litchfield called some of the report’s findings “unprecedented and unsupported and will be challenged by Freeborn Wind, as the process allows.”
“The report’s recommendations regarding sound, for example, are flawed and may have wide-reaching implications on Minnesota’s existing and future development, and may set a new, severely-limiting precedent for other industries as well, including agriculture,” he said.
“As written, the report suggests that on windy days when the wind is the dominant source of sound, no other noise-making equipment may be run. Essentially, in addition to disallowing wind turbines, the state’s standards could disallow farmers to operate machinery or grain dryers on windy days.”
Doreen Hanson of the Association of Freeborn County Landowners said the organization is “very excited and very pleased about it.”
“It’s a great win for the non-participants in the project,” she said. “I think it’s great that Invenergy will need to follow the law, including ambient noise in the setting, if a permit is issued.”
Litchfield cited findings in the report that found evidence supports the wind farm’s stance that the project would not harm property values.
He said the report also concluded that sound modeling was conducted using conservative assumptions, that the project will result in short- and long-term benefits to the local economy, and the project will contribute to public health by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases in Minnesota.
Hanson said though there are economic benefits to the project, there are also economic costs for the people who live in rural settings.
“When you put industrial turbines amongst homes, there is a cost to the residents,” she said.
Hanson said several people sent signed affidavits to the administrative law judge stating they put their home building plans on hold after the project was announced.
“I see all of that as costs,” she said. “The nuisance is coming to us.”
Litchfield cited the report’s finding that Freeborn Wind revised the project boundary multiple times to increase distance from higher-quality wildlife habitats in the project vicinity and has followed the recommendations of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in the project’s layout and configuration.
Litchfield said the study found the environment will benefit from the project, which is supported by participating landowners.
Hanson said landowners who support the project should understand that the recommendation from the administrative law judge is to “follow the state law.”
“If there is not enough land to follow the state law, the project simply can’t proceed,” she said. “We do have to follow our rules and regulations.”
If the project is approved, Xcel Energy reportedly plans to start construction on the wind farm in fall 2019, with commercial operations still commencing in the fourth quarter of 2020. The time when the wind farm will become operational is expected to depend on weather, permitting and other development activities.
The Public Utilities Commission is expected to deliver a decision on issuing a site permit in July.
The commission issued a draft site permit in January. The turbines are expected to be in London, Shell Rock, Hayward and Oakland townships. Twenty-five to 49 turbines are expected to be in Minnesota, with the remaining balance planned for Iowa.
Litchfield expressed confidence that the project will be approved.
“The MnPUC has cited thousands of megawatts of wind throughout the state, and our team is confident that the MnPUC will apply its collective knowledge and experience to the reasonable portions of this report and move forward with Minnesota permitting for the benefit of our Freeborn County participants, all local taxpayers and ratepayers.
“We look forward to working in collaboration with Freeborn County landowners and our peers in wind to advance wind development in Minnesota.”