|By Brett Boese The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN ST. PAUL The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted 2-1 on Thursday to deny a plan protecting birds and bats for the 78-megawatt AWA Goodhue wind project in Goodhue County, causing a setback to the proposed wind farm north of Zumbrota.
The Avian and Bat Protection Plan was a condition placed on the site permit approved by the PUC last June. The document took five months to develop in conjunction with Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but was still deemed insufficient.
"I don't think this is the document I anticipated seeing when we issued the site permit," PUC acting chairman David C. Boyd said.
The plan, which is just the second such document developed in state history, is the final state-mandated permitting hurdle the project must clear before construction can begin. Wind officials had targeted June 1 for breaking ground on the 32,000-acre project, but that now appears impossible.
National Wind officials declined comment afterward. However, documents filed earlier this month by the company suggest that any delay in the permitting process would put the project's future in jeopardy. A new protection plan can be filed at any time, but PUC commissioners asked for more wildlife surveys and studies that are expected to take months if not years to complete.
Construction of the 48-turbine project is projected to take 6-12 months and it must be operational by Dec. 31 to be eligible for millions of dollars in a federal tax credit program that expires at the end of the year.
PUC commissioners Betsy Wergin and J. Dennis O'Brien criticized the protection plan at Thursday's hearing.
"I don't see anything improving," said Wergin, who has voted against the project at three straight hearings. "I actually see this as another reason why this project shouldn't move forward I think this is the most troubled (wind project) we've ever encountered."
More than 100 people filled the hearing room Thursday for the two-hour hearing.
Questions of the protection plan's substance proved problematic for the commissioners. The actual number of active bald eagle nests within the project's footprint was debated and many questioned whether other survey work completed by Westwood Professional Services for National Wind was reliable.
The bat portion of the protection plan also was rife with issues. Westwood's monitoring timeframe did not comply with the required dates from a previous PUC hearing. In addition, the two monitoring devices were only functioning properly in tandem for about 50 percent of the time.
A citizens group that opposed the wind project was happy with the outcome.
"I think the Lord answered our prayers," said Steve Groth, who said citizens have spent six figures fighting this project. "And we've been praying a lot."
Opponents also were happy that O'Brien chastised the Minnesota Department of Commerce Energy Permitting staff during the hearing. O'Brien said he was "frustrated to no end" by the staff's language in its recommendation to approve the protection plan, saying it was "tough to separate the wind developer from EFP staff."
Also on Thursday, Coalition for Sensible Siting attorney Dan Schleck received word that the Minnesota Court of Appeals would accept an amicus brief from Goodhue Wind Truth, another citizens opposition group. The two entities had appealed the PUC's decision to issue a site permit last fall, but Goodhue Wind Truth was dismissed from the process in January over a mailing mistake.
The court also denied AWA Goodhue's motion for an expedited process though Schleck said the process could still ahead move quickly. The wind project's motion stated that it could not secure funding for the $180 million project while it was tied up in litigation.