PUC approves site permits for solar, wind hybrid projects in SW Minn.

Wind turbines are seen beyond a farm in the distance.
Wind turbines from an existing site are seen Jeffers Petroglyphs in Comfrey, Minn., on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021

Updated: Aug. 26 | Published: Aug. 25

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission this week approved site permits and related transmission routes for the Big Bend Wind and Red Rock Solar projects in southwest Minnesota. It will be the state’s largest hybrid renewable energy project.

When complete the sites will produce about 300 megawatts of windpower and up to 60 megawatts of solar generation. The project will install 55 turbines at the Big Bend wind project and solar panels on more than 480 acres on nearby land for the Red Rock solar project. 

The PUC also approved a permit for an 18-mile transmission line to connect to the power grid. The projects will be built in Cottonwood, Martin, and Watonwan counties. 

The project, which was proposed back in 2017, worked its way through the regulatory process. However, concerns were raised by stakeholders, such as Lower Sioux Indian Community, Upper Sioux Indian Community and the Minnesota Historical Society, about the proximity of wind turbines to Jeffers Petroglyphs in Comfrey, Minn. 

A hand print in red rock.
A carving of a hand is revealed with distilled water at Jeffers Petroglyphs in Comfrey, Minn., on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The site is 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’s still an active site of prayer and ceremony for many Native American people.

The Lower Sioux Indian Community, the Upper Sioux Indian Community, and the Minnesota Historical Society were able to reach a settlement agreement addressing concerns about the visual impacts to the site, which allowed the project to proceed. 

“We’re excited to receive all the applicable permits, via a unanimous vote of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission,” Apex Clean Energy wrote in a statement. “We are especially thankful to the tribe for their coordination with the project in finding a mutually acceptable solution for bringing this important project to southern Minnesota.”

The company stated the Big Bend Wind and Red Rock Solar projects would generate enough to power about 138,000 homes and “hundreds of millions of dollars in local investment, tens of millions of dollars in local tax revenue, and hundreds of jobs during construction.”

Robert Larsen, president of Lower Sioux Indian Community, said the agreement reached was a compromise and the best outcome possible.

“For centuries, tribal interests in protecting their homes, their people, their histories, and their ways of life have been set aside for pursuit of progress,” Larsen said. “Railroads, agriculture, mineral development, industrialization, trade — each has carried this moniker and each has come at great cost to tribes across the country. Lower Sioux is no stranger to this history."

A man stands outside on a snow-covered field.
Robert Larsen, tribal chairman of Lower Sioux Indian Community.
Hannah Yang | MPR News File

Larsen added that this was one of the first times that he felt the PUC heard tribal voices in a project’s planning process. He hopes it’ll be a model for future engagement with other companies seeking to advance energy projects in the area.

“This commission has taken a bold step in deviating from the status quo. Throughout these proceedings, it has fostered sovereign-to-sovereign cooperation by encouraging to engage and by deferring to them," Larsen said. "This Commission has created space for tribal interests in the pursuit of progress and the result is an unprecedented settlement, while by no means perfect, is an acceptable compromise for Lower Sioux that allows for a viable project, while mitigating its impacts.”

Kevin Maijala, senior director of learning initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society, said having stakeholders involved earlier in the regulatory process helped strike a balance with supporting renewable energy projects and protecting historic and cultural sites in the state.

Under the settlement reached in September 2021 Apex Clean Energy agreed to modify the wind-turbine layout so almost none of the turbines will stand within 7 miles of the Petroglyphs. The agreement allows up to two turbines 6.5 miles from the site.

Apex Clean Energy also will not apply for additional permits to develop wind turbines within 8 miles of the petroglyphs. 

“This is a good example of how historic preservation and protection of cultural resources can happen in collaboration both with Indigenous communities, as well as companies that are looking to create a project or do something in an area near some of our best resources,” Maijala said. “That collaboration is a big part of the story. It’s not unique, but it’s not very common either.”

Maijala added while visitors may still see wind turbines far in the distance, the agreement uses a preservation tactic that mitigates the impact as much as possible. 

Signage will be added to the historic site to explain the projects.

“From the visitor experience, it’ll be a little part of the landscape,” Maijala said. “But, it’ll also be a part of the interpretation, as we talk about the changing world around us and how this is an example of a good preservation tactic that we use by working with tribes and working with a company, Big Bend, to make sure we get the least impact possible.”

In a release PUC Commission Chair Katie Sieben said the permitting, processing and dialogue held with communities was “very encouraging.”

“The Public Utilities Commission is called on to make difficult decisions and community members feel heard, respected, and part of the process,” Sieban said. “It is rewarding to know that the Commission created a space for all voices to come together to help pave the way for the building of the largest hybrid project in the state.”