Wind farm group forms
Published 8:52 am Monday, April 13, 2009
A group in Freeborn County has concerns with the setbacks for the proposed Bent Tree Wind Farm, the health impacts of living close to wind turbines and the route planned transmission lines need to connect the turbines to the power grid.
“It is not safe to put this size of turbines by residents,” said Katie Troe, a resident of rural Clarks Grove who is spearheading a group called Safe Wind in Freeborn County.
She said the advocacy group doesn’t oppose wind farms so much as opposes having them close to residences. It started last November with a mailing to tell the 381 homeowners in the area of the proposed wind farm that they had until Dec. 3 to comment to the state about the site permit and until Jan. 8 to comment about the certificate of need.
Email newsletter signup
Troe said there is no membership requirement so she doesn’t know how many people are part of the group. But there is another way to estimate it.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s Office of Energy Security received 28 comment letters for the December deadline. Twenty-five of them were from locals with concerns and who likely had seen Troe’s mailing.
Two letters were from people in state agencies, and one was from Alliant Energy, which owns Wisconsin Power & Light.
Larry Hartman of the Office of Energy Security said it was more letters than most wind farm projects receive. The letters can be found online at the PUC’s site. Many of them are form letters, but a few are original.
In March, Safe Wind got a federal identification number and a bank account and filed as a public safety advocacy group.
At present Wisconsin Power & Light needs four primary documents for its Bent Tree Wind Farm: a certificate of need from Wisconsin (because the energy the wind farm produces is to be for that state), a certificate of need from Minnesota, a site permit from Minnesota and a conditional-use permit from Freeborn County for transmission lines to connect the wind turbines to the Hayward electrical substation.
Last Monday, the Freeborn County Planning Commission met to hear comments about the conditional-use permit. It was the start of a seven-day scoping period. Today is the final day.
The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners meets Tuesday morning to receive the comments.
Power lines carry power to neighborhoods and buildings, usually seen on poles. Transmission lines carry bulk power, such as substation to substation or from power generators such as coal plants, dams and wind turbines to substations. Usually, they are held by towers, not poles.
There are two initial routes proposed by Wisconsin Power & Light for the route. One follows public right-of-way along roads and the other does the same except for one stretch through one farmer’s field. Later, a third route was added to the list. It follows an existing transmission-line corridor owned by another company.
Last Monday, one comment maker proposed a route through farmers’ fields in an effort to avoid residences.
Under Minnesota’s eminent domain laws, if a landowner rejects purchase offers, Freeborn County Planning and Zoning Director Wayne Sorensen said it effectively takes the route out of consideration. The more private land it goes through, the less the likelihood to reach fruition.
Troe said Safe Wind lawyers have had questions about the lack of depth of an environment assessment Sorensen prepared on the transmission-line routes as part of the conditional-use-permit process. At the March 16 meeting, the assessment was tabled until County Attorney Craig Nelson could review it.
Commissioner Dan Belshan said he has pushed to have legal counsel at meetings concerning the proposed wind farm.
“I think everybody agrees the wind farm is a positive thing, but we just want to do it correctly,” he said.
Troe said environmental assessments done for state agencies in St. Paul take at least eight months to prepare. Sorensen said he is shooting to bring the environmental assessment before the Planning Commission on May 4. Troe said she doesn’t think Sorensen has the expertise.
“I have concerns on how he’s going to prepare an environmental assessment in less than a month,” she said.
Sorensen said Safe Wind has its documents confused because of nearly similar terms. He said state law requires counties to perform an “environmental assessment” and doesn’t give further directions on what that is.
“It just says you have to do an environmental assessment but doesn’t tell you how to do it,” Sorensen said.
He said “environmental assessment worksheets” as submitted to the state Environmental Quality Board are different and have extensive guidelines. The EAWs indeed are lengthy, he said, but he is not doing one.
He said it is the first time his department has prepared an environmental assessment on a conditional-use permit for a transmission line, but he noted his department has done environmental assessments with several conditional-use-permit applications, including gas lines and fiber-optic lines. He added Clark Engineering in Minneapolis is consulting to review the environmental assessment.
Sorensen said he will suggest Tuesday to the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners that the county address all concerns brought forth during the weeklong scoping period.
On the conditional-use permit for the lines, Wisconsin Power & Light had a choice whether to go to the state or the county.
“I would argue that for the permit by going to the county, instead of the state, it would be more restrictive,” he said.
Last Monday, Troe asked about conflicts of interest on the Planning Commission. The proposed transmission lines are separate from the proposed wind farm but because they would lead to it, she said, anyone benefiting from the wind farm shouldn’t vote on the lines.
She also argues that the county itself has a conflict. She said because the county stands to benefit from additional tax revenue as a result of a wind farm, the environmental assessment should be done entirely by an independent agency or consultant.
Sorensen said Nelson will make a recommendation Tuesday about conflicts.
Nelson said his advice is that members of the Freeborn County Planning Commission who have “a direct financial interest” — in this case, signed leases for wind turbines — should abstain from voting.
The state has a law requiring wind farms to be 500 feet away from residences, but it also requires a decibel setback. They must be quieter than 50 decibels for 54 minutes of every hour.
Turbines at the Bent Tree Wind Farm will be 1,000 feet from residences, wind farm officials have proposed.
Safe Wind in Freeborn County, Troe said, is asking for setbacks of one mile, but she added that she would be happy with a half mile.
Troe and lawyers hired by Safe Wind base their request on research they find at places such as www.wind-watch.org, www.windturbinesyndrome.com and www.windwisefairhaven.com. Some people living near wind turbines say they experience a disorder termed “wind turbine syndrome,” Troe said.
They say they have sleeping problems, headaches, dizziness, exhaustion, irritability and difficulty concentrating, she said. She said because wind energy is a relatively new field there isn’t much research about its impact. Some researchers, one being upstate New York pediatrician Nina Pierpont, argue sensitivity to low-frequency vibration is a factor.
Wisconsin Power & Light spokesman Steve Schultz said an operating wind farm at 750 to 1,000 feet away makes the same amount of noise as a kitchen refrigerator. He said noise is taken into account when siting turbines.
“As far as I know, we are moving ahead with plans,” he said.
Troe lives on an acreage and is not a farmer. She does not reside within the area where the wind farm is proposed. She said she is spearheading Safe Wind because she is concerned for her neighbors and the Freeborn County countryside.
Are there delays?
Wisconsin Power & Light’s intended project schedule can be found in Appendix D of the site permit application the Madison, Wis.-based company filed in August with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Copies were given to landowners, and it is available online.
The project was to start in April 2008 and finish in October 2010.
The application forecast the Wisconsin regulatory process would be wrapped up in December 2008 and the Minnesota regulatory process would be done in January 2008. Neither are finished. The schedule calls for construction to have begun this month.
Schultz said the schedule was merely an estimate and said it was “on the shorter side of what the process could actually take.”
He said Wisconsin Power & Light closed the sale of the development and land rights with Wind Capital Group on March 20. The present schedule aims for construction in 2010. He said hearings for the certificate of need in Wisconsin are scheduled for near the end of this month.
Winds of change
The first phase of the Bent Tree Wind Farm is proposed to create 200 megawatts of energy and the second another 200 megawatts. It has an estimated price tag of $497 million. The site-permit application calls for 266 turbines.
Local officials tout the tax revenue it will bring to the county, and, if state laws change, to the schools.
Safe Wind has two lawyers, Carol Overland of Red Wing and Amy Wasson of Albert Lea.
“Carol has worked in energy law for over 14 years,” said a Safe Wind letter dated March 30.
The letter states, “Safe Wind’s sole purpose is to work with all levels of government to achieve safe setbacks for turbine placement.”
Does the presence of an advocacy group concern Wisconsin Power & Light?
Schultz said it isn’t uncommon for people to have concerns about wind farms, whether as a group or as individual landowners.
He said because wind farms are relatively new, people have questions. He said Wisconsin Power & Light encourages people to bring forward concerns so they can be discussed.
“We want to work with these groups and help them understand,” Schultz said.
Safe Wind requested the Public Utilities Commission grant a contested case hearing for the site permit. On March 24, the commission denied the request. However, a public hearing on issues of siting and permitting was ordered but not until an expected report — aka a white paper — is issued from Minnesota Department of Health on the health effects of wind turbines.
The commission suggested the hearing on the permit could be held in conjunction with a public hearing for the certificate of need.