TOLEDO – What had been shaping up to be a routine discussion item for the Tama County Board of Supervisors every week – the continuing request by a local coalition for a moratorium on wind energy projects – was anything but this past Monday in Toledo when a representative from the company behind the latest proposal popped up in the audience.
In response to a question posed to the supervisors by a member of the public in regards to who owns one of the energy companies – Apex Clean Energy – currently developing an industrial wind energy project in the county, the company’s public engagement manager Drew Christensen made his presence known.
Sitting a couple rows back from the leaders of the coalition Tama County Against Turbines, Christensen began by answering the question at hand.
“To be clear, China does not own Apex,” Christensen said. “[Apex is] a privately-held company … Ares [Management Corporation] is the largest part of that private group that owns Apex.”
In November 2021, Apex announced that Ares Management Corporation and other funds managed by Ares had acquired a majority stake in Apex. In a press release dated Oct. 21, 2021, Keith Derman, a partner and co-head with Ares’ investment group, said: “There is a deep, long-standing relationship between Ares and Apex … Apex has an industry-leading renewables business that positions our investors at the forefront of the energy transition in North America.”
Ares Managament Corporation’s global platform is estimated to have some $262 billion worth of assets, per the press release.
According to CNN Business, some of the biggest investors in Ares Management Corporation – those with the largest number of shares – are Wellington Management Co. LLP, The Vanguard Group, Inc., Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., Capital Research and Management Co., and BlackRock Fund Advisors.
Christensen was then asked a question regarding the length of Apex’s leases in the Winding Stairs Wind project footprint.
“Thirty years with two 10-year extensions,” Christensen said. “It says right at the top of the lease how long – in really big letters … we make very clear, this is a big decision – we encourage people to consider it very carefully – as well as we encourage everybody to take it to an attorney.”
Christensen was then asked what brought Apex to Tama County. He listed several factors including access to transmission, the interest of landowners, and the “community at large.”
“We are very very early on in this process of developing a project in Tama County,” Christensen said. “We have very little in the way of firm plans. This is the part of the project where you’re evaluating the interest of landowners, where you are talking to people in the community. We have years of studies … before you would be talking about any sort of a layout or any sort of real, hard plans.”
Later Christensen was asked what he meant by “early stages.”
“We certainly don’t have land to build a project at this point,” he said. “We are in the early stages of talking to landowners, evaluating where there’s interest within [Winding Stairs Wind project footprint] … as well as wildlife studies, working with fish and wildlife service … to figure out where turbines could go.”
“So when do you folks pack up and leave?” Tama County Against Turbines chair Jon WInkelpleck asked Christensen. “Tama County has spoken … They don’t want your development company in this county. So when do you guys decide ‘Hey, we’re not getting anymore [easements signed]. It’s time to leave, it’s time to move on?’”
Following a pause, Christensen responded, in part, “There certainly are a lot of people who are interested in taking part and participating in this project.”
Winkelpleck asked how many people had signed leases with Apex, as well as how many acres total had been signed up – both questions Christensen declined to answer.
Christensen then shared that Apex’s Winding Stairs Wind project would need “somewhere in the realm of north of 20,000 [acres]” to be viable – with the caveat that each turbine is taking up less than an acre of land.
Following more back-and-forth between Winkelpleck and Christensen, Winkepleck asked, “Are you asking for the farm or does the easement cover only what the turbine sets on?”
Christensen eventually said an easement with Apex covers “all of them” – meaning all the acres listed in the lease – not just the one acre that might be used for a turbine.
“Generally people are signing up parcels,” Christensen said.
Christensen later revealed that he has signed a lease with a wind developer for his own land in southern Minnesota. Heather Knebel with the Tama County Against Turbines group asked him what he felt would be a safe setback on his own land.
“Apex has an internal setback of 1,225 feet minimum. That’s bare minimum. There are other things that they have to take into account like shadow flicker and sound standards … they’re not necessarily going to be that close.”
Knebel further pressed if he would be “okay with [a turbine] 1,200 feet away from your family?”
“Yeah, I hope as little as possible so I can get more [turbines] on my parcel,” he responded.
During a conversation with Richard Arp – also a leader with Tama County Against Turbines – Christensen was asked how Apex sites turbines around eagle nests.
“The DNR has recommended – they don’t have any power to enforce it – they said five mile [buffer around eagle nests] is the minimum,” Arp said. “Most of the Apex ground that is signed up around Clutier and Elberon is within that five mile range.”
“We’ll have to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Christensen said. “Not every [wind energy company] goes through that process, but we do go through the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
It was unclear what Christensen meant by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “process,” but as was reported previously, a wind energy company may apply for and receive eagle incidental take permits from the service which would allow the authorized lethal take of eagles at wind energy facilities, as well as the authorized disturbance of a nest during project construction if a nest occurs in close proximity to a road.
Threat of lawsuit, conflict of interest
A continuing thread in the discussion around the wind energy moratorium has been the threat of a lawsuit – according to the supervisors – as well as supervisor Bill Faircloth’s possible conflict of interest due to an easement he recently signed with Salt Creek for his own acres under phase two.
In the wake of the supervisors meeting on May 2, the board held a special meeting on May 5, and the only item on the agenda was “legal consultation on zoning issues.”
According to the meeting minutes, the supervisors including Vest, Faircloth, and Dan Anderson, entered into closed session shortly after the meeting began.
In addition to the supervisors, those present during the closed session included Karen Rohrs – assistant to the Auditor, Carlton Salmons – Heartland Insurance Risk pool attorney, and Todd Apfel – Tama County Zoning Administrator.
The session lasted approximately one hour, and no action was taken upon re-entering the open session.
Early in the meeting on May 9, Vest was given permission by Faircloth (who was attending the meeting by phone due to illness) to summarize Salmons’ advice.
“A conflict of interest happens if Bill Faircloth – where he lives on the highway, in the path of the Salt Creek project – was the only one to get paid as an acreage owner, and that is just absolutely not true. Everyone in [the path] is entitled to pay. So our attorney explicitly said there is no conflict of interest,” Vest said.
The supervisors were further questioned on their reasoning by Tama County Against Turbines leaders, but both Vest and Anderson indicated they trusted the advice of their attorney.
Tama County resident – and current Republican candidate for District 1 Supervisor to replace Vest, who is retiring this year – Jim Niebergall also addressed the supervisors during the meeting in regards to the threat of a lawsuit.
Niebergall asked the supervisors to flesh out their reasoning that they were risking a possible $10-$20 million lawsuit.
“As someone who is seeking to occupy this seat, would you think it would be appropriate [for] us to enter into any agreement that’s going to cost somewhere between 10 and 20 million dollars in lawsuits?” Vest asked Niebergall at one point.
“[I]f we go in and change our [wind energy] ordinances now,” Niebergall responded, “How do we get ourselves in the [position] where we’re going to get into a lawsuit?”
“[The] developer for the Salt Creek project has already invested a lot of money,” Vest replied. “You got a crapshoot with the courts and how much they’re going to allow for future loss of revenue – if we stop them now and change the ordinances.”
After being asked for further clarification regarding which phases of Salt Creek he was referring to in regards to a lawsuit, Vest said he believes they could be sued for all phases of development.
“One and two,” Vest said before explaining the board’s attorney had provided guidance on the subject – that they risked a lawsuit by enacting a wind energy moratorium now – and they planned to act based on his advice.
May 23 meeting
For the third official time, the supervisors declined to take any action on the coalition’s request for a moratorium, but a meeting was still set for May 23, between coalition members and possibly Tama County Zoning Administrator Todd Apfel.
Confusion remains as to whether Apfel will be present at the meeting, but Vest indicated the possibility would be discussed at the next regular meeting of the board of supervisors set for May 16, beginning with a work session at 8:30 a.m.
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