After receiving a petition from residents in Norway Township near Lake Mills last month, Winnebago County Supervisors are investigating all sides of siting and other issues for Invenergy’s coming Worthwhile Wind project.
On Feb. 23, supervisors heard first from Winnebago County Zoning Administrator Matt Duve about the wind turbine permitting process and this particular project. Next, they discussed the wind project slated for Worth and Winnebago counties with Invenergy Renewable Energy Development Manager Mark Crowl, who is project lead developer.
Duve stated that no application for permit has been received, but that Invenergy officials had contacted him about six weeks earlier to inform him of the project and establishment of landowner voluntary easements in northeast Winnebago County.
He said his primary contacts have been wind turbine opponents and that several southern Iowa counties have asked about the county’s permitting process.
Supervisors noted that noise and red flashing lights at night are concerns that are increasingly being raised by wind turbine opponents.
“I think the zoning process is really important,” said supervisor Susan Smith. “People in my district that have been contacting me, obviously, they are very interested in setbacks. They are also interested in decibel or noise levels and also the red lights on top of them. If they go in, people are interested in having lights be radar activated (for air traffic).”
Duves suggested that updates to existing wind turbines would also be subject to special exception permits and approval by the Board of Supervisors.
“Our county is at least giving landowners and developers the same voice,” said Duve. “I think that is the right thing to do and to go through a special exception permit process.”
Duve emphasized that the special exception permit application must first be solicited. After received and when the Zoning Board feels comfortable with the permit, a public hearing will need to be scheduled and the “living document” will be passed to the Board of Supervisors for its final decision-making, according to Duve.
Duve listed the current Winnebago County Planning and Zoning Committee members (three-year terms), involved in the permitting process, as Harley Hassebroek of Buffalo Center, Darla Thompson of Thompson, Barb Abele of Leland, Jim Benson of Forest City, and Mark Enderson of Lake Mills.
Invenergy’s Crowl said that the project started in 2018 largely in Worth County. Crowl estimated a span of about 30,000 acres overall have been signed on to the project through voluntary easements, including about 6,000 acres in Winnebago County near the border with Worth County.
He noted this is an area where a block of landowners has shown significant support for the project. Crow stated that although project planning is nearing mid-stage, it is still too early in the process for detailed conversations on issues. He instead explained the general processes the company goes through to address various issues, including environmental and wildlife concerns.
“I was surprised the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has recommendations, but it does not have any rules,” Smith told Crowl, who assured her that Invenergy consults with the IDNR on certified project areas.
“We will consult with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and begin to site and build our project based on their recommendations,” said Crowl. “We don’t know where turbines will be placed, but it will be heavily studied first.”
Crowl also noted that today’s technology includes larger turbines than past projects, including the Worthwhile Wind project. He said a benefit is that there is a smaller footprint for the larger turbines, which can help with noise and also setback concerns in some scenarios.
He said the company studies wind farm development areas for several years beforehand. He also said an emphasis of the easement process of late has been to provide more certainty for landowners on the front side of a project, so they can know what to expect and not have any big surprises.
Matt Helgeson of Lake Mills, who organized the Norway Township petition drive against the wind project, cited 12-15 woodland and wildlife areas where turbine construction is being considered.
“My own family has about 500 acres of woodland,” said Helgeson. “Turbine placement is being considered less than one mile away. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has often recommended a one-mile setback.”
Crowl noted that a team of wildlife experts would complete extensive studies in the area to be supplied to the IDNR. He suggested that Invenergy would follow the IDNR recommendations regarding wildlife and habitat areas.
“We start with recommendations from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources,” said Crowl. “If valid habitats are found, we may step back.” He concluded that the study impacts and the IDNR recommendations will be used to make siting determinations prior to a permit application being filed.
Crowl also noted that only about 15 percent of the Worthwhile Wind Project is planned for Winnebago County with the large majority of wind turbines to be in Worth County. He said that 5-8 large wind turbines are planned at this time for the area near Lake Mills.
Finally, Crowl informed supervisors that Invenergy has effectively reduced flicker/shadows from turbines associated with its wind projects and will complete impact studies on AM/FM, television, and microwave communications signals prior to turbine site determinations. He said that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would need to approve radar-activated lighting on turbines after Supervisors inquired about it as a means to avoid constant nighttime flashing lights.
Invenergy currently hopes to have the wind project in place sometime in 2024, according to Crowl.