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PUC postpones decision, will re-examine need for wind farm

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission neither gave the go-ahead nor the red light to a proposed wind farm for Goodhue County.

Instead, the commissioners voted 3-0 Thursday to reopen the certificate of need for New Era Wind Farm LLC's project, which would build a 48-turbine wind farm near Goodhue.

By doing so, PUC staff will re-examine whether the proposed wind farm still fulfills the project intent outlined in its original certificate of need, which the commission approved in August 2011.

"I do believe that we have very significant ground for opening the certificate of need docket," Commissioner Betsy Wergin said just before the vote.

One of the issues commissioners cited was a change in ownership. The project was acquired by Peter J. Mastic Holdings II on Oct. 2. In the past, it has been under the ownership of American Wind Alliance, a subsidiary of a Texas-based company, and National Wind, which was recently acquired by an India-based company.

How that affects the project's Community-Based Energy Development status also concerned the commission.

"All of us are very aware that the C-BED statute is intended to help facilitate the development of projects," PUC Chair Beverly Heydinger said. "We want to make sure that this process is meeting the C-BED statute. It's crucial. We can't just call it C-BED."

Other issues include the project's financing, its in-service date and power purchase agreements.

Commissioners also questioned whether Xcel Energy needs the electricity that the wind farm would supply.

Representatives from Xcel Energy, which has a purchase agreement with New Era to buy the power the turbines produce, gave a split answer Thursday.

"We have adequate resources," to meet current renewable energy needs, said Jim Alders of Xcel Energy. "The flip side of that coin is in order to continue to comply with regulations of renewable energy standards, we will have to add significant amounts of renewable energy over the next 10 years."

Thursday meeting's agenda originally called for decisions on how the ownership change affects its C-BED status and on its avian and bat protection plan.

Both matters were tabled in light of the commission's concerns. Commissioners J. Dennis O'Brien and David C. Boyd were absent.

Heydinger also instructed New Era to address citizen concerns about how the wind farm would affect wildlife.

Thursday's meeting lasted about five hours. The first 90 minutes were devoted to public comment. State Reps. Steve Drazkowski and Tim Kelly and Sen. Matt Schmit raised concerns about the entire project, but mainly about its C-BED status.

"If the intent is really to build up the community and help the community in any conjunction with energy development, that purpose should be served and kept at that forefront," Kelly said. "It is very, very clear that that is not happening here."

Drazkowski cited a potential lack of adherence to the statute. "I believe at this point that those parts of the law are not being met."

Nineteen other people spoke -- mostly farmers living near the proposed wind farm and residents concerned about the turbines' effects on bats, bald eagles and other birds.

Only two of the commentators spoke in support of the wind project, and both were on New Era Wind's advisory board.

"To stop the project now is kind of unfair seeing that we were moved along, moved along," said Dennis Gadient, citing the fact that the project has been delayed several times. "The need for this project is still there."

There is not yet a timeline for when the commission will take final action on the certificate of need. The commission could choose to send the issue to an administrative law judge.

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.