As groups vow to fight it, Minn. wind project closer to reality

Wind turbines
A proposed wind farm in southeastern Minnesota, which could look like this one in Iowa, is one step closer to reality after Goodhue County officials said they wouldn't appeal appeal a decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that allows a wind developer to proceed with a $179 million project near Red Wing.
MPR File Photo/Nikki Tundel

Goodhue County officials decided Tuesday not to appeal a decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that allows a wind developer to proceed with a $179 million project near Red Wing.

But two citizens' groups say they still plan to appeal the commission's decision, which overrode Goodhue County's more restrictive guidelines on the setback distance for the turbines.

The long-standing controversy over the wind farm boils down one question: Does the state or the county regulate a project that includes 50 turbines spread across 32,000 acres of farmland in Goodhue County?

Opponents of the controversial wind farm believe the county's ordinance with stricter setback requirements for the turbines should govern the project.

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State law allows counties to create their own laws on such issues, but the Public Utilities Commission has the right to override those laws for just cause. That's what the commission did earlier this year when it approved the 78-megawatt wind farm.

Goodhue County Commissioner Jim Bryant, who voted against the appeal, said agrees with the utility commission's decision. He said it's the state's job, not the county's, to regulate large wind projects in Minnesota.

"We don't have the expertise, the manpower, the time or the resources to manage large wind farms," Bryant said. "Goodhue County doesn't."

County Attorney Stephen Betcher said the Public Utility Commission's rules refer to projects up to 25 megawatts in size. The county drafted its own ordinance because there are no state or utility commission regulations that address setback issues for wind farms larger than 25 megawatts.

"There was a clear vacuum there of guidance on exactly of what we could expect them to do," Betcher said. "There is no compilation of their previous decisions that we can easily refer to."

Betcher said the demand for wind comes in part because of a state law that requires utilities to generate at least a quarter of their power from solar, wind and burned waste by 2025. Given such energy mandates, he said, the Legislature also should address the conflict they create between clean energy and protecting the environment.

"Our hope would be that the Legislature would adopt a statute that requires the Public Utilities Commission to examine, in a public docket, all of the issues and adopt guidelines for these large wind farms just as they have guidelines for the medium-sized wind farms," Betcher said.

Officials with the developer, AWA Goodhue Wind, did not return phone calls for comment Tuesday.

Since it was proposed, the turbine project has generated strong opposition from some residents, who question the effect the turbines will have on local wildlife and eagle populations.

The Coalition for Sensible Siting, a citizen group that has long opposed the wind project, will continue with its plans to appeal the utility commission's decision, said its president, Steve Groth.

"It'd be nice to have the county beside you, but I kind of like to separate myself from the county," Groth said. "The weak leadership that they have at the county right now, I don't want it to be reflecting on us right now, because we're committed to a cause. Obviously, they're not."

Groth wants an appellate court to reverse the utility commission's decision and allow the county's ordinance to regulate the project.

"If this thing carries through ignoring the basis of that ordinance, it's going to create more divisions between the neighbors and they'll be a lot of lawsuits, nuisance lawsuits," he said. "It's going to be terrible. It's terrible now. It's going to get worse."