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High-Stakes Wind Farm Drama in Minnesota Enters Final Act

Minnesota regulators will likely give their final say this week on the state's highest-profile and hardest-fought battle over wind turbine placement

By Dan Haugen, Midwest Energy News

Jun 29, 2011
rural Goodhue County

Update (June 30): The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has granted a conditional site permit to a subsidiary of T. Boone Pickens' Mesa Power Group to build its controversial $179 million, 78-megawatt wind farm in Goodhue County, after months of testimony. 

Two fronts have collided before Minnesota utility regulators, and now, observers on both sides are waiting to see which way the wind will blow in what's been the state's highest-profile and hardest-fought battle over wind turbine placement.

The proposed $179 million, 78-megawatt Goodhue Wind project would consist of 50 turbines spanning about 32,000 acres of farm land an hour's drive southeast of the Twin Cities. The developer is a subsidiary of Mesa Power Group, which is owned by Texas oil-and-gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens.

Last October, about a year after the developer applied for site permits, Goodhue County adopted a setback ordinance that bans wind turbines within 10 rotor diameters — about half a mile in this case — of any non-participating neighboring home. That's in stark contrast with state law in Minnesota, which generally requires setbacks between 750 and 1,500 feet based on noise and other factors.

The local ordinance grew out of grassroots opposition from a group of county residents who fear the turbines will upset their quality of life. The developer, which has partnered with about 200 other local property owners, says the project can't go through under the local setback rules.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is likely to give its final say on the matter Thursday after months of testimony and discussion. Its decision will be the first major test of a 2007 amendment that gave counties limited authority to adopt more stringent wind setbacks than those spelled out in state law.

"It's certainly something every wind developer is paying close attention to, because one way or another it affects how they're going to propose their next project," said Sarah Johnson Phillips, a renewable energy attorney with Stoel Rives in Minneapolis.

What the Law Says

Under the 1995 Minnesota Wind Siting Act, state regulators have permitting authority over large-scale wind energy developments, defined as any with 5 megawatts capacity or more. Local governments can set rules for any projects smaller than 5 megawatts.

In 2007, the same legislation that created the state's renewable energy portfolio standard also amended the state's wind siting act. It gave county boards an option to assume responsibility for wind applications and permits for projects less than 25 megawatts, assuming they follow certain guidelines from the utilities commission.

Six counties have since chosen to take on that role, including Stearns, Lyon and Freeborn.

A county may adopt large-wind ordinances that are more stringent than state standards, the amendment says, and the utilities commission "shall consider and apply those more stringent standards unless the commission finds good cause to not apply the standards."

Goodhue County is not among the six counties that has assumed administrative and decision-making responsibility for those wind projects up to 25 megawatts. This is one of the reasons an administrative law judge in April ruled that the amendment doesn't apply in the case, and that the utilities commission has no obligation to consider the county’s setback ordinance.

"This is a test of how far the public utilities commission is willing to go to follow a county ordinance that doesn't necessarily apply to the project in question," Phillips said.

'It Definitely Won't Be the Same'

Red Wing attorney Carol Overland said for her clients, Bruce and Marie McNamara, their way of life is at stake.

"What's at stake for them is whether they'll be able to continue to live and work on their farm, whether they can stay on their farm," Overland said.

The McNamaras own a small organic dairy farm within the proposed wind development. The nearest turbine would be on a neighbor's property about half a mile from their home, according to the administrative law judge's report. The McNamaras formed Goodhue Wind Truth to oppose the project and promote their concerns through flyers, newspaper ads and billboards.

The group and its allies have raised a number of complaints.

They allege noise, shadows and transmission lines related to the project will lead to lost sleep, sick cattle, dead birds, spoiled views, and depressed home values. They've questioned the financial fairness and whether enough of the profits will stay in the community. And they’ve criticized the effectiveness of wind power in general.

"It’s not reliable," said Bruce McNamara. "You don't know when the wind is going to be blowing."

McNamara said he is most concerned about the potential health impacts he believes will accompany the turbines, ticking off a list of conditions that include tinnitus, heart palpitations and sleep deprivation. He said he knows this from reading about and talking to people who have lived near turbines in other parts of the world. However, there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that turbines have any adverse health effects on humans.

"It definitely won't be the same as it was before," McNamara said.

Wind Industry Watching

On that last point, Lisa Daniels, founder and executive director of Windustry, will agree.

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