Commission unanimously approves Freeborn Wind Farm permits

Published 5:19 pm Thursday, September 20, 2018

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved site and route permits for the Freeborn Wind Farm Thursday.

Approval came at a packed, contentious meeting attended by dozens of supporters and detractors of the project, expected to be in London, Shell Rock, Hayward and Oakland townships. Twenty-five to 49 turbines are expected to be in Minnesota, with the remaining balance planned for Iowa.

Throughout the three- to four-hour meeting, detractors of the project wore red shirts and showed signs telling commissioners to reject the project. Supporters wore green shirts expressing project approval.

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Commissioner Matt Schuerger said he was comfortable supporting the project plan because of the support it received from state agencies.

Commissioner Katie Sieben said she also supported the project, noting she received a letter in July 2017 from a constituent saying the issue was “tearing neighbors apart.”
“I would hope that as the applicant has modified, has moved wind turbines, has lessened that division,” she said.  

In response to the comment, detractors of the plan loudly stated that Invenergy had not changed project plans.

At one point, Sieben called into question concerns regarding possible interference the project will have on broadcast signals.

“You don’t live down there,” someone in attendance told Sieben.

Public Utilities Commission Board vice chairman Dan Lipschultz did not approve Association of Freeborn County Land Owners lawyer Carol Overland’s request to send the permit back to an administrative law judge.

“The votes are here on the commission to grant the permit without any requiring any new modeling,” he said.

An administrative law judge ruled in May that the Freeborn Wind Farm failed to demonstrate its planned 200-megawatt operation in southeast Minnesota and north Iowa meets Minnesota noise standards, a point frequently referenced by Overland, who said Freeborn Wind did not change its application after the finding.

“That is the record, and it based on the record,” she said.

“Do not issue the permit.”  

Freeborn Wind Energy lawyer Christina Brusven said the record showed the project will have short- and long-term economic and health benefits by increasing the tax base and decreasing reliance on less-clean energy sources.

She said the project originally included the placement of 100 wind turbines in Freeborn County — since reduced to 42 — allowing the project to meet relatively stringent requirements in Freeborn County.  

Brusven said professionals were hired — including two medical doctors — to correct misconceptions about health impacts the wind farm could pose.

Freeborn Wind Energy is an affiliate of Invenergy LLC, a Chicago-based large-scale energy developer tasked with developing, designing and permitting the project. Xcel Energy will then purchase the ownership interest in Freeborn Wind following permitting and prior to construction and will construct, own and operate the project.

The meeting was attended by dozens of supporters and detractors of the proposed wind farm. – Sam Wilmes/Albert Lea Tribune

Brusven said Freeborn Wind Energy has used worst-case variables in its noise modeling, which has increased her confidence the wind farm will not exceed noise standards.

Overland said the company’s effort to study noise from planned turbines so far has been “better than nothing, but not good enough.”

The case was the first contested case involving wind farms in Minnesota.

Brusven said Freeborn Wind Energy must mitigate over-the-air interferences but does not believe changes to the site permit are needed, noting the organization hired a local contractor to address the issues.

Bill Grant, Minnesota Department of Commerce deputy commissioner of energy and telecommunications, said the project can operate within noise standards and recommended the project be approved.

Greta Gauthier of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said the project would sometimes result in slight sound increases but would not present adverse health risks.

Overland said approximately 480 people signed a petition opposing the project.

“The community does not consent,” she said.

“This is a pre-existing community.”
Overland said 2012 MPCA guidelines say developers should not propose projects where noise is projected to exceed standards. She requested the commission include natural and turbine noise in noise standard levels.

“There is no basis for changing the level of noise that is permitted,” she said, adding the project application did not include decommissioning information.

“It’s not our job to ensure the application is complete,” Overland said.

She contended the permit was improperly reviewed.

KAAL-TV lawyer Richard Savelkoul did not say whether the permit should be approved but expressed concern over the possibility of on-air broadcasts being affected. He said KAAL supports the administrative law judge’s concerns over the issue.

“The permit currently lacks clarity, and it needs to be corrected,” he said.

Brusven said possible issues involving over-the-air television broadcasts were not widespread.

Sieben expressed concern by addressing the issue, commissioners were “creating an issue where there isn’t an issue.”

Board Chairwoman Nancy Lange asked if Invenergy evaluated moving wind turbines or modified the project layout to avoid possible noise concerns.

Brusven said turbines would never exceed  Minnesota Pollution Control Agency noise standards, adding developers could evaluate slight adjustments to turbines or use low-noise blades.

Overland said any possible noise concerns must be addressed before construction.

“Once it is up, mitigation is quite tough,” she said.

After approval, Stephanie Richter, who lives south of Glenville in the route of the planned wind farm, said she and her husband might move because of the wind farm.

“We’re disappointed in the Public Utilities Commission,” she said. “They seemed to already come pre-determined with what they thought they wanted to do, which was not to listen to the landowners that live here.”

Richter said the permit should have been denied because it was incomplete. To her, a lack of turbine decommissioning plans in the project permit places local residents at risk of paying for future out-of-service turbines.

She said project economic benefit will primarily be during development.  

Richter expressed concern the wind farm will affect local residents with pre-existing health conditions, noting one person who bought a home in the path of the wind farm has six turbines within one mile of the home.

“How many is too many around one homestead that is not a participant?” she asked.  

After approval, Invenergy Senior Manager for Project Development Dan Litchfield said the company will alert approximately 850 households to possible temporary losses of over-the-air broadcasts.

Preventative steps are expected to be taken to minimize any environmental impacts.

“We’ve developed this project in a responsible way, and we made a lot of concessions,” he said.

Litchfield expects a three-part agreement with Freeborn County to be signed to address county ordinances. He also plans to have dialogue with landowners in the path of the wind farm.

“I hear them,” he said. “This whole proceeding that culminated today was about what are the facts. And the facts are that wind turbines do not cause health problems. The facts are our project was designed not only to not cause health problems, but to minimize any nuisances. So, nuisances or annoyances are not a health problem, but we’ve made significant changes to meet those concerns.”

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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