8/1/2013 2:08:00 PM "Lights out" for New Era wind farm
By Paul Martin
After months of cautious statements in measured legal language, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) issued a series of orders on July 26 that almost certainly ends the plan to build a large "wind farm" between Goodhue and Zumbrota.
For some years, the hotly contested proposal for up to 50 large turbines generating up to 78 MW of power has dragged forward, pitting developers and some local landowners against concerned residents. Now it looks like it is "lights out" for the project.
In March, the PUC had asked the developers, now known as New Era Wind Farm, 13 pointed questions about the status of their plans. They were not satisfied by the answers they got. In their new order, the PUC
Refused New Era extra time to complete the wildlife studies and other information they had demanded. They concluded: "The ultimate issue before the Commission is straightforward - is New Era so likely to bring its wind farm on line by December 31, 2013 that it is reasonable to subject the host community to the continued uncertainty that extension of the in-service date would bring?"
Refused to extend the date laid down for power generation to start in the original Certificate of Need. New Era had asked for that date to be extended from December 31, 2011 to December 31, 2013. The PUC do not believe even that deadline could be met. Again noting local concerns, they wrote, "Local residents have been subjected to some five years of uncertainty as to whether their community will be hosting a wind farm."
Revoked the Site Permit needed to start construction from the current August 23 deadline. They noted that New Era is now involved in lawsuits with some of the landowners who were hoping to draw income from turbines sited on their land. This means that they can't guarantee that they could go ahead using current siting plans, the PUC believe.
Found that the transfer of ownership and purchased power agreements to New Era violated State law concerning the project's crucial C-BED status.
No Local Ownership
Initial approval of the project was based on almost total local ownership. C-BED stands for Community-Based Energy Development. State law has encouraged locally owned power cooperatives, and given them favored status. One effect is that the power generated can be sold for above-market prices because of state subsidies. The initial development company, AWA Goodhue Wind, showed almost 100% local ownership. After at least two deals, however, current ownership is based in Nevada.
No Power Sales to Xcel Energy
On July 16, Xcel Energy pulled the plug on its contract to buy the power generated by the proposed wind farm. New Era responded by including in their request for more time hopes to find another purchaser, or to transfer the agreement to another wind farm. The PUC denied this, too.
No Complete Wildlife Studies
Over the last year, local protestors have questioned New Era's wildlife studies. They claim that these studies have consistently undercounted, or even willfully ignored, bats and several endangered or threatened bird populations, including loggerhead shrikes and golden and bald eagles. The PUC noted these concerns, and said New Era had still failed to produce convincing figures.
County Commissioner for the area Richard Samuelson was pleased that the question is almost resolved. "I hope we can move on now with no hard feelings," he said. "I don't want the message to go out that we are opposed to clean energy in Goodhue County, but this project was in the wrong place."
Minneola Township resident Barb Stussy said that concerned area residents remain cautious. "We can't be certain the project is finished until the August 23 site permit deadline has passed without New Era filing for an extension," she noted. They also urge Goodhue County to withdraw their resolution supporting the plans as a C-Bed project, which they have so far been unwilling to do because of fear of lawsuits. "In any similar situation in the future, a resolution of support should include a deadline, and not be open-ended," she said.