AVON – Despite sweltering temperatures and sound system issues in the gymnasium, an estimated 200 people kept their cool during Thursday’s public hearing for a proposed wind farm near Avon.
The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) conducted the hearing on the permit application for the proposed Prevailing Wind Park Energy facility. The project would be located on approximately 50,000 acres of land in Bon Homme, Charles Mix and Hutchinson counties. The site would be located north of Avon and southwest of Tripp.
PUC chairwoman Kristie Fiegen emphasized that Thursday’s meeting wasn’t the final say on the controversial project, which would be located near the current Beethoven wind farm.
“No decision is being made tonight or in the immediate future,” she told the audience.
During the first two hours of Thursday’s hearing, around two dozen people delivered passionate arguments for and against the facility. Many of them read statements, outlining studies and anecdotes ranging from economic to environmental.
In contrast, others – mainly landowners near the proposed turbines – showed emotions ranging from tears to anger. Some were newcomers to the area, while others had roots that ran back several generations.
Fiegen told the Press & Dakotan that the Avon meeting provided valuable input from those affected by the proposal.
“The decision has to be made within six months of the (application) filing, so the decision will be made in less than six months (from now),” she said. “Today, people have been very respectful. People have been proponents and opponents, but whatever they feel, everybody has been respectful.”
Fiegen viewed Thursday’s hearing as laying good groundwork for future steps, including a formal evidentiary hearing in Pierre.
PUC commissioner Chris Nelson said he saw Thursday’s hearing as an important step in the total fact-finding process.
“A lot more information will be gathered before the hearing in the capitol,” he told the Press & Dakotan. “All the parties will present their information, and there will be cross-examination from the other parties.”
Nelson envisions a final decision on the Prevailing Wind project by early to mid-fall.
“It’s going to be probably in October,” he said. “That would really be my guess, but that depends on the next couple of things.”
At the start of Thursday’s hearing, Fiegen emphasized, in order to obtain the permit, the applicants must show that the proposals would not cause harm in a number of prescribed ways.
PROVIDING AN OVERVIEW
Peter Pawloski, representing the sPower renewable energy company that owns and would operate the project, provided an overview of the Prevailing Wind site. The plan calls for as many as 61 turbines, each nearly 600 feet tall, producing a total installed capacity not exceeding 219.6 megawatts.
The project would interconnect with Western Area Power Administration’s (WAPA) existing Utica Junction substation, located approximately 27 miles east of the project collector substation.
sPower would begin construction and installation of the wind turbines and other components immediately upon a PUC approval of its permit application, Pawloski said.
“We expect to be operational by the end of next year,” he said.
Pawloski noted that his company has implemented a feature on its other projects.
“It suppresses the red blinking lights (on the turbines), until aircraft approaches the area,” he said. “When the aircraft leaves the area, the lights go off. We expect to use the service for this (Prevailing Wind) project.”
sPower plans to use area workers, where possible, for the project, Pawloski said. “We like to hire locally and train locally,” he said.
Pawloski outlined the Prevailing Wind project’s economic benefits, ranging from landowner payments to jobs to spending in the regional economy. In addition, he explained features such as data transmission and security features at the turbine sites.
As Prevailing Wind’s owner and operator, sPower is in it for the long haul, Pawloski said.
“For the next 30 years, you’ll see sPower as we make ourselves part of the community,” he said. “Everyone will go on with their daily lives, and we want to be as minimally disruptive as possible.”
THE PUBLIC SPEAKS
The floor was opened up to the public, with periodic interruptions because of sound system issues and the large fan circulating behind the PUC officials.
However, speakers from both sides patiently lined up for their turn at the microphone. Some in the line-up and audience vigorously waved hand-out sheets to circulate air and to stay cool.
The following are some of the speakers and their comments:
• Erik Johnson, who farms south of Avon, said he was an investor in the Prevailing Wind project. He brings an engineering and financial background to the table.
“I’m putting my own money at risk,” he said, expressing his confidence in the venture.
Johnson, who has spoken about the project in the media and at meetings, said he wanted to set the record straight.
“I want to present information and counter misinformation,” he said. “I have complete confidence that the permit application (decision) will be based on facts.”
• Ron Hornstra, who lives south of Avon, said that the Beethoven wind farm brought jobs and additional tax revenue. Because of Beethoven’s success, even more parties have shown interest in the proposed Prevailing Wind facility, he said.
“There’s a strong sign of support for the project,” he added.
• Karen and Mike Jenkins, a married couple from rural Tripp, strongly opposed the proposed wind farm.
Karen Jenkins said she doesn’t believe that Bon Homme County officials, particularly the zoning board, have been totally transparent about the wind farm.
The Jenkins’ property already suffered a major hit with the neighboring Beethoven wind farm, she said. The Prevailing Wind farm would worsen the problems.
“In real estate, location is everything, and we had it,” she said, referring to the value before the wind farms. “The landscape of our neighboring property has been altered forever.”
In addition, she described medical problems which she attributed to the Beethoven wind farm.
Mike Jenkins said he wanted to see at least a three-mile setback for the wind farms.
The controversy surrounding the wind farms has already harmed the personal relationships among area residents, he said. “This has caused a lot of divisiveness,” he added.
• Jeff Haverly, a member of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), said his agency has received numerous inquiries about wind energy and other renewable energy. Rural areas stand to benefit from such demand, he added, describing job creation and other economic benefits
“South Dakota is one of the top five states for wind energy potential,” he told the Avon audience. “We don’t take positions (on proposed projects), but we see the potential for the expansion of wind energy in South Dakota.”
• Ruby Holborn of Sioux Falls disputed many of Haverly’s points, particularly on projections that wind farms could bring a boon for rural areas.
“Fourteen South Dakota counties have wind projects, and each of their populations declined except for Bookings County – and that was because of (NCAA) Division I (at South Dakota State University) and industry,” she said
Holborn argued that many wind farm investors and even workers don’t live amidst the turbines, and they take their money and taxes out of the affected area.
She also disputed the contention that South Dakota wind farms could provide a reliable power source for the state and rest of the nation.
“Wind energy is intermittent. You would need a back-up (energy source),’ she said.
Holborn urged the PUC to oppose the Prevailing Wind application.
“South Dakota should use scientific considerations rather than political ones,” she said.
A number of speakers presented objections ranging from aesthetics to decibels to zoning issues. Some speakers noted they would have several wind turbines surrounding their property.
Other speakers opposed what they saw as the destruction of their heritage.
Zachary Schoenfelder of rural Wagner, one of the younger audience members, spoke passionately about his desire to maintaining the fifth-generation farm. He is living on a homestead that he said has already been devastated by surrounding wind turbines.
Schoenfelder spoke of losing a way of life, even the little pleasures of seeing the Northern Lights. He spoke of the importance of at least maintaining setbacks. He added that the presence of wind turbines has driven away people who want peace and quiet.
“I don’t fear change, but I have five wind turbines surrounding my home. I can’t put (my farm) on wheels and cart it out,” he said. “This is a social and economic issue that needs to be addressed immediately.”
The meeting included a bit of a spiritual experience and call for reconciliation.
The Rev. Dan Brandt, who lives five miles northeast of Avon, asked that neighbors battling over the controversial issue show Christian compassion toward each other.
On the one hand, Brandt said he could be supportive of the wind farms. “South Dakota needs to catch up with the world,” he said.
However, he also sees the divisiveness that the issue has wrought, even among family members. He asked that both sides not engage in misinformation and bitterness, following Jesus’ example that the truth shall set you free.
“Lay down your artillery, and think about the truth,” the minister said. “We need to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and we need to love God with all our heart, souls and minds.”