County to permit parts of wind farm

Published 7:10 am Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Proponents of a 300-megawatt wind farm proposed in Mower County avoided a significant hurdle Tuesday and kept part of the permitting process on the local level.

The Mower County Board of Commissioners accepted — albeit reluctantly — a request by the state of Minnesota to be the permitting authority for three substations and three transmission lines for the Pleasant Valley Wind Farm project, which is being proposed by Renewable Energy Systems Americas.

Had the county denied the request and deferred the permitting to the state, some involved argued the project would have been delayed, which ultimately could have risked the future of the project.

The county also could have lost their chance to have a voice in the project.

According to Jeff Borberg, vice-president of McGhie & Betts Environmental Services Inc., the county would lose their say in the project if they opted to defer the project to the state.

“All the decisions will be made in the state, Broberg said if the county had deferred to the state. “You won’t have any say-so over any aspect of this.”

Paul Johnson, project manager with RES Americas, said deferring the project to the state could have postponed the project by six months or more. He added that if the project was sent back to the state, it would essentially be at the back of the line to other projects around the state.

“A six-month delay by putting it back to the state would create a real risk for this project, and we don’t want to see that,” Johnson said.

Such a delay, Johnson said, could potentially lead to the end of the project because the company planning to eventually buy the power produced by the wind farm could have backed out.

The commissioners accepted the request somewhat reluctantly, largely due to concerns about the additional amount of work that will be required of county employees.

The county will be responsible for overseeing the crafting of an environmental assessment for the transmission lines and substations. The county will hold a public scoping hearing where people can voice their concerns about the project, and count officials will need to publish a notice of the hearing at least 10 days in advance. The public hearing will be followed by an additional seven days when the public can submit comment.

While a contractor would likely write the environmental assessment, the county would be responsible for reviewing it. The county would then have to publish a notice stating the document is complete.

Mower County Environmental Services Director Angie Knish estimated the overall process would take the county about 45 days.

According to Knish, Freeborn County held a scoping hearing for the Bent Tree Wind Farm that lasted three hours until the board opted the end the hearing down.

Environmental services won’t have to do all the work themselves, as the county can hire a consulting firm, likely McGhie & Betts, to write the environmental assessment under the supervision of the county.

Any additional county costs can be charged back to the applicant, RES Americas.

While it’s not a simple process, Broberg said they’re not reinventing the wheel for this work. Templates of how to conduct the process are available because it’s been done before.

Commissioner Tim Gabrielson expressed concern of whether the county would have the time and man power to complete the process. He also said the county will be pushing their business back to take on the extra workload. For example, if certain work is pushed back, the county could risk losing feedlot grant money.

Commissioner David Hillier expressed concern about the state of Minnesota getting local government to do their work. Commissioner Mike Ankeny asked Knish if her office would be handle the extra work, and Knish was reluctant to give a yes or no answer, but she said additional help would be appreciated.

“If you determine you want to do this on a local level, we’ll make time,” Knish said. “But it’s getting thick. Things are stacking up.”

The project affects about 300 landowners in the county, and 50,000 acres of land, according to Johnson.

Some of those land owners attended the meeting and called for the permitting to be done quickly and locally.

Gene Tapp, a land owner and a member of the Red Rock Township board, said the project is important because of the effect it will have on the county’s tax base. He also said the project could attract jobs to the area.

“This is a boost for this economy, I believe,” he said. “For the city of Austin, Mower County, it’s going to bring us a lot of tax revenue.”

Larry Sparks, a chairman of the Sargeant Township board, said he’d like to see the project move forward quickly.

“I’m a firm believer that the closer to home we can make these decisions, the better,” he said. “I’ve fought all my life to keep things out of St. Paul and Washington, D.C.”

The environmental assessment isn’t the only hurdle standing in the way of the project. RES Americas still needs to obtain conditional use permits, and the state Public Utilities Commission has to approve a certificate of need and a site permit.