A new, 430-foot-tall wind turbine could soon be erected at the same site north of Altura where two failed wind turbines were demolished in 2018.
Wind developer Paul Roeder, of Waukon, Iowa, and Wes Slaymaker of WES Engineering, based in Madison, Wis., plan to build a new turbine on Leroy and Suelynn Kronebusch’s farm at 15535 County Road 31, just outside Altura. At 430 feet in height including the rotors, the proposed new tower would be taller than two, 335-foot-tall turbines that sat on the site for years. The new tower would have the same power-generation potential of the old ones: a combined 1.5 megawatts. After taking a step to address neighbors’ stray voltage concerns, the Winona County Planning Commission voted unanimously last week to give their blessing to Roeder and Slaymaker’s proposal.
The story of how the site’s previous two turbines failed and were demolished is a long one, full of complicated business dealings and protracted legal battles. In short, U.S. developer Juhl Energy bought turbines from South Korean manufacturer Unison and erected them on the farmland outside Altura. Unison later sued Juhl for allegedly never paying for the turbines; Juhl claimed the turbines never worked. The dispute was ultimately decided by an arbitrator, who said both sides were partially at-fault and required Unison to help pay for the towers’ decommissioning.
Roeder said he and Slaymaker helped Juhl Energy with its project early on, and – while mechanical problems and legal disputes ultimately sunk that effort – Roeder said the Kronebusch farm is still a great site for a turbine. “We just want to take this project and turn it into something that I think Winona County would be proud of,” Roeder told the Planning Commission last Thursday. He highlighted that he would be using a different make and model of turbine than Juhl did – one with fewer moving parts and a proven track record.
Neighboring farmers Becky Clark and Larry Greden raised concerns about stray voltage during a public hearing. In simple terms, stray voltage is when electricity leaks from a power source or electrical line and flows through the ground to places it should not go. Stray voltage can cause big problems for livestock farms because animals’ water sources can become charged, giving animals a shock when they try to drink. If not fixed quickly, that can have a huge effect on the animals’ health and the farmer’s livelihood.
Greden recalled a past stray-voltage horror story from a wind turbine on his farm. “We had trouble before. How do we know it’s not going to happen again?” he asked.
Clark had her own tale of stray voltage problems on her dairy – in part because, she claimed, a neighboring solar plant did not properly test for stray voltage. The county typically requires solar plants and wind turbines to test for stray voltage before and after commissioning, but that requirement does not specify who should do the testing. Clark asserted the company hired to do the testing did not know what they were doing, and she had to have an Xcel Energy staff member explain how to do it properly. Clark asked the Planning Commission to specify that the wind developers must have Xcel Energy do the testing. Slaymaker said that would be fine, and the Planning Commission made it one of the requirements of the new turbine’s permit.
“I don’t think anyone understands how much us farmers dread stray voltage and how difficult it is, if it does happen, to get some kind of a solution if we don’t start out with getting it right when it’s constructed,” Planning Commission Chair and fellow dairy farmer Eugene Hansen said.
Normally, the county requires stray voltage testing of all abutting properties, but in this case most of the abutting properties are farm fields without houses or feedlots. Planning Commission member Steve Jacob proposed testing the three nearest farmsteads instead of all abutting properties.
“The problem with that is the abutting properties aren’t dwellings, they’re just vacant farmland … We’re not going to find any problems there,” Jacob argued. If there is a problem, testing farmsteads would be more likely to find it, Jacob reasoned. However, the Planning Commission and county staff struggled to find a reasonable point at which to draw the line when it came to how many neighboring properties should be tested.
Jacob argued that by testing the three nearest farmsteads, any stray voltage problem would likely be detected. If that problem affected other properties, as well, the wind developers would still be responsible for fixing it, but it would not be necessary to test every property in the area, he said.
Some Planning Commission members agreed with that logic, while others, such as Planning Commission member Mark Clark, questioned why the county should limit the number of properties tested. “I’d just leave it as it is,” Clark said, arguing for requiring testing of all abutting properties.
Jacob’s proposal for handling the stray voltage testing passed 4-3.
The Planning Commission voted unanimously the recommend the wind turbine permit to the County Board for a final decision.
Two more solar plants near Ridgeway
The Planning Commission also endorsed plans for two new solar power plants near Ridgeway.
The two plants are both one megawatt and between eight and 10 acres in size. One would sit on farmland near McNally Ridge Road and County Road 12. The other would be located near Ridgeway Road and County Road 12.
Neighbors raised aesthetic concerns about both and asked for more mature trees to be planted for screening. Originally, one project had proposed planting seedling trees to screen the solar panels from neighboring homes. “I’d also recommend the screening to be mature trees because every morning and every night I walk out my door, I’m going to see a solar farm,” neighbor Chris Wundrow said.
Planning Commission members had concerns about the potential for erosion at the site of the McNally Ridge Road solar plant because the panels are proposed to be located near a ravine and on top of grass waterways. “If [the grass waterway] is shaded, the grass underneath dies, and then it’s eroded,” Clark warned. However, county staff and other Planning Commission members were satisfied that a yet-to-be-developed erosion control plan and stormwater plan for the solar plant would address those concerns.
The Planning Commission added a condition requiring taller, more mature trees be planted to screen the solar panels from neighbors’ homes and voted unanimously to recommend both solar plants to the County Board.
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