SW Minn. wind-solar hybrid project brings renewable hope, cultural concerns

Tribal nations, historical preservation officials concerned about proposed wind and solar farm project near sacred site

A man with no shoes on walks across red rocks.
Site manager Dave Briese walks in his socks among ancient rock carvings at Jeffers Petroglyphs in Comfrey on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A proposed wind and solar farm in southern Minnesota is vying to be the first of its kind in the state, if approved. But the project’s proximity to a cultural site that is sacred to many Native Americans has historic preservation officials and tribal leaders anxious about its impacts. 

The Apex Clean Energy company’s proposal would install about 55 turbines for the Big Bend wind project and solar panels on more than 480 acres of nearby land for the Red Rock solar project. Together, it would be the first wind-solar hybrid farm in Minnesota, a state that has committed to moving its energy resources away from fossil fuels as a way to mitigate the state’s contributions to climate change.   

The project, proposed in 2017, is working its way through the regulatory process. On Thursday evening, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission hosted a virtual meeting to gather public input around the scope of the project’s environmental review. Comment touched on a range of concerns, from the height of the turbines to potential impacts on the environment and on property values for residents nearby.

A handprint in red rock.
A carving in the shape of a hand is wet with distilled water to bring out contrast at Jeffers Petroglyphs. Some of the carvings were made as long as 7,000 years ago.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A possible major hurdle is the project’s proximity to the Jeffers Petroglyphs historical and cultural site near Comfrey — home to an estimated 5,000 sacred rock carvings, made over the span of 7,000 years on an outcropping of Sioux quartzite. Today, it remains an active site of prayer and ceremony for many Native American people. 

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Several tribal nations, the Minnesota Historical Society and Apex have been discussing the  concerns over the project for more than a year. Cheyanne St. John, historic preservation officer for the Lower Sioux Indian Community, said she hopes that state regulators will recognize the importance of the site to Native people — and the potential implications if the project is greenlit for its proposed location. 

At issue is the Big Bend wind turbines not far from the petroglyph site. While tribal leaders and community members say they aren’t opposed to renewable energy, St. John and others are concerned that the project would disrupt the landscape of the area — and how some people use the site for spiritual practices.

Wind turbines are seem beyond a farm in the distance.
Wind turbines from an existing site can be seen at a distance from Jeffers Petroglyphs in Comfrey. The site offers 360-degree views of some of Minnesota's remaining prairie, and a proposed wind and solar farm would add more turbines to the landscape seen from the site.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“This is nothing new, for tribes to try to convince people that our landscapes are significant, important to us,” St. John said. “This is a battle that we have been fighting for generations.” 

The Jeffers Petroglyphs site is managed by the Minnesota Historical Society. Site manager David Briese said many people visit the site to pray and place offerings on the petroglyphs. He’s concerned that the project might interfere with how visitors experience the site.  

A man in an orange and blue face mask.
Strong wind blows site manager David Briese's hair at Jeffers Petroglyphs in Comfrey Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“Wind energy is good, but it also impacts the way people perceive this space and how this space is used,” Briese said.

“Some people are going to see the wind turbines and think it’s great and it’s progress towards a cleaner energy, which it is. But the people that pray here, it impedes how they practice their religion or their spirituality.”

Apex Energy’s initial plans called for the nearest turbines to be built about 2 miles from the Jeffers Petroglyphs site, but the company adjusted its plans in response to some of the complaints.

As the proposal stands now, the turbines would now be as close as 5.2 miles from the petroglyph site. In order to compensate for the energy generation capacity lost by moving those turbines, the company said it would need to increase the amount of energy produced in the wind farm — and that would mean installing taller towers with larger blades.

Leaders at the Minnesota Historical Society think 5 miles is still too close — and are now concerned about the height of the turbines. The Historical Society, the Upper Sioux Community and the Lower Sioux Indian Community are asking state regulators to establish an 8-mile buffer around the petroglyphs. And they’re asking Apex to reconsider raising the height of the turbines. 

In a statement, the company said it has worked with local and tribal leaders to assess the area for cultural impact. 

“This active participation of tribal representatives has been crucial in the design of a project that minimizes impacts to this important cultural site, and Apex will continue to work with tribes and other stakeholders as the permitting process moves forward,” the statement said.

A man on his knees sprays rock with a bottle of water.
Site manager Dave Brieses uses distilled water to reveal faint petroglyphs and carvings Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Historical Society community and outreach director Ben Leonard said that, while he understands the need for renewable energy development in Minnesota, that development also needs to maintain the integrity of historical sites like the petroglyphs. 

“You can’t really tell the history of Minnesota — especially the history thousands of years ago — without talking about Jeffers and experiencing Jeffers,” Leonard said. “It’s that important.”

In a statement, an Apex spokesperson said the company chose the area near the Jeffers Petroglyphs site because of “verified wind and solar resources, the strong support of local landowners and residents, minimal environmental impacts, and access to transmission lines.”

The reception to the project at Thursday’s public meeting was mixed. Some logged on to the video chat specifically to vocalize their support. Among them was Cottonwood County Commissioner Norman Holmen. 

A carving of a woman figure in red rocks.
A carving of First Woman, a sacred rock carving significant to Indigenous mythology, is wet by distilled water to bring out the contrast at Jeffers Petroglyphs. Site manager David Briese says that it is one of the oldest petroglyphs at the site.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“We have had the unanimous votes on these on this project and the solar project and just want to go online publicly to acknowledge that we do support the project,” Holmen said. “They have been received positively and we have not heard basically any negative feedback on them at our meetings.”

Ann Peschges, one of the commenters at Thursday’s public meeting, disagreed. She said she lives within a mile of the proposed wind farm.

“This is not just a project to us. This is where we’ve lived for decades,” Peschges said. “I mean, some [families] have been here for ... 150 years, and they feel like they’re going to be shoved out.”

Another attendee, Davis Harder, who said he lives in the middle of the proposed project site, is concerned about the potential environmental impacts the turbines might have on local wildlife, particularly eagles — and he was concerned about conserving prairie land. 

A truck drives down a road beyond a sign.
A truck passes down a dirt road to a farm near Jeffers Petroglyphs in Comfrey. Much of the area has been turned from prairie into farmland, but the petroglyphs still contain a large swath of original prairie.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“[It’s] the last remaining fragments of prairie in this part of the state,” Harder said. “It’s an important feature to kind of preserve. It’s one of those few areas where you can kind of feel like you’re in a prairie still, whereas most of it’s ag land now.”

Kevin Pranis, of Laborers International Union North America, joined the meeting in support of the project, saying the combined wind and solar farms would afford opportunities to the trades industry and offer jobs and apprenticeships. But he also acknowledged an importance to striking a balance.

“In order to head where we’re heading on energy, and have reliable energy, we’re going to need to figure how to both accept those impacts, and also address local concerns and try to maximize the benefits of these projects as much as possible,” he said.

The public comment period for the PUC’s environmental scoping closes on April 30. The PUC is expected to make its final regulatory decisions on the project sometime in early 2022. Apex Energy hopes to have the hybrid project online sometime in 2023.