Board OKs wind farm permits

Published 10:14 am Wednesday, March 12, 2014

100-turbine project nears May construction

After more than seven years of planning, a 200-megawatt wind farm took a major step toward construction in Mower County Tuesday.

The county board voted 4-0 during Tuesday’s regular board meeting to approve two conditional use permits for a substation and transmission line for Renewable Energy Systems Americas’ Pleasant Valley Wind Farm. Commissioner Mike Ankeny was absent.

“I guess a good thing is worth waiting for,” said RES Development Manager Justin Markell.

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The project will consist of 100, 2-MW Vestas turbines over 35,000 acres — 88 turbines in Mower County near Dexter and Sergeant and 12 in Dodge County. The turbines are already approved by the state, but the county board agreed to be the permitting authority for the transmission line and substation.

RES Americas plans to begin building the wind farm by May, and the wind farm could be completed by October 2015.

But not everyone supports the project. Tina Schafer, who’s attended several previous meetings, spoke at length Tuesday in opposition to the substation and transmission line. Dan and Kathy Blanchard also submitted a letter to the board voicing their opposition to the substation’s location near their property. However, the Blanchards did not attend the meeting, a move that was criticized by commissioners.

Schafer voiced concerns about noise levels exceeding those allowed by state standards, especially on the Blanchards’ property. While the Blanchards’ residence is more than 1,000 feet away from the substation — which meets state standards — Schafer said the substation would have to be more than 1,700 feet away to meet noise standards.

Schafer also voiced concerns about the turbines and substation ruining the rural landscape for the Blanchards.

Sean Flannery, a permitting specialist with RES, said the company has worked with engineers on the issue.

“Sound is an issue we look a lot at for these projects,” he said.

Markell argued RES Americas went to great lengths to meet prior criticisms from the public, working to secure a shorter, 5-mile transmission line route preferred by the public at past meetings. Plus, he argued RES addressed all concerns in the Environmental Assessment previously accepted by the county board.

RES plans to install a treeline along the western side of the property between the substation and the Blanchard property, and the board added a stipulation to the permit requiring RES to build the vegetation barrier.

While commissioners voiced empathy for Schafer’s concerns, they said it wasn’t enough to deny the permits. Commissioner Tim Gabrielson said he feels for the Blanchards, but said RES has to follow through and meet state sound standards.

“I don’t think we have much choice but to approve this. By adding the barrier part, that should help relieve some of it,” he said. “In the end, RES has to follow through.”

Schafer also voiced concern that overhead transmission lines and Electro Magnetic Field exposure would increased the likelihood of developing breast cancer. However, Commissioner Jerry Reinartz said this concern was adequately addressed in the Environmental Assessment.

“There’s conflicting reports no matter who you listen to,” Reinartz said.

No one besides Schafer and RES officials spoke in opposition or support of the project. Markell was pleased with the board’s decision.

“I think the board did well to recognize the balance that a project like this involves. It will never be fully embraced by everyone,” Markell said. “But in general, it’s got advocates, and it’s a project born out of compromise and attention to as many details as possible.”

Though the permits passed Tuesday were the final approvals needed, Markell noted RES Americas must still meet compliance obligations with the state and county. RES will now shift into the pre-construction phase.

“There is a lot of work to be done, especially as we we near the construction season,” Markell said.

RES Americas will likely build an operations and maintenance facility that will likely be located in Sargeant. Once completed, Xcel Energy will purchase the wind farm.

This is the second time the board approved the transmission lines and substation for Pleasant Valley. In December of 2010, the board approved three substations and two transmission lines for the then 300 MW wind farm developed by RES Americas. But the project stalled because of uncertainty whether Congress would renew the federal wind production tax credit — a key subsidy for wind energy. Eventually, Congress extended the credit for a year.

Originally, more than 300 landowners were involved. Now, more than 180 landowners are participating in the project, and 69 will have turbines on their property.

Currently, there are 253 wind turbines in Mower County, according to County Coordinator Craig Oscarson. The additional 88 turbines in Mower will boost the money the county and townships receive through the Wind Energy Production Tax. The county is slated to receive about $1.2 million this year, and the added turbines could add $400,000 a year for the county. However, the county won’t receive the money until after the first year Pleasant Valley is in production, since it’s based on the amount of energy produced.