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Goodhue County wind farm all but dead

It was a tough week for New Era Wind and its controversial 78-megawatt wind farm planned for Goodhue County.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted to revoke New Era's certificate of need at a meeting Thursday, less than a week after Xcel Energy filed a lawsuit in district court to end power purchasing agreements with the long-delayed project.

The MPUC cited New Era's failure to follow the commission's orders, as well as a lack of confidence in company's ability to build the wind farm, as factors in its unanimous decision.

Without a certificate of need, the project's site permit will expire automatically July 3. In the meantime, New Era can either voluntarily surrender the permit or petition the MPUC for a certificate exemption.

For the exemption to work, New Era would have to demonstrate that it intends to begin construction of the project by Aug. 23.

New Era retained the law firm Kutak Rock LLP to replace its existing legal counsel in a last-minute move Monday. Attorney Todd Guerrero then requested a two-week extension to Thursday's MPUC meeting in order to become more familiar with the case. But the request was denied, and the meeting went on as scheduled.

Guerrero said in a phone interview Friday that he would be speaking with project owner Peter Mastic to help decide which course of action New Era would take regarding the site permit.

Mastic did not respond to a request for comment.

Pending lawsuit

Further confounding the project's difficulties is a lawsuit filed by Xcel June 14 in Hennepin County District Court. The utility company is seeking a court order that says it is justified in terminating a pair of 20-year agreements to buy power generated by New Era's wind farm.

Xcel is also looking to collect damages for having to revise its resource plan to account for the loss of generated power caused by the project's numerous delays.

The suit alleges a pattern of contractual violations by New Era -- known originally as AWA Goodhue Wind -- since entering into the agreements in 2009, including a failure to meet construction milestones and not establishing a nearly $5.9 million project security fund.

Additionally, the suit alleges New Era did not get Xcel's required written consent for a change in ownership when Mastic took over the project from Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens in 2012.

Xcel stated May 24 that it was seeking to work with New Era to voluntarily end the purchasing contracts, but after two weeks an agreement had not been reached.

"We continue to hope we can work out a voluntary termination but, at this time, believed it is in our customers' best interest to seek judicial determination that termination is legally justified," wrote Jim Alders, Xcel's manager of regulatory projects, in a letter filed June 17 with the MPUC.

Without the purchasing agreements in place, construction of the wind farm would be "difficult, if not impossible," Guerrero said.

Citizens' victory

Originally slated for commercial operation at the end of 2011, the New Era wind farm was bogged down in a debate over permit regulations and the effect of turbines on wildlife.

Due largely to pressure from citizens groups like Goodhue Wind Truth and the Coalition for Sensible Siting, the MPUC reopened the discussion on how the project might impact nearby eagle and bat populations. The commission rejected New Era's plan to protect the animals in February 2012, effectively putting the project's construction on hiatus.

"We are very happy that the utilities commission asked the right questions," said Marie McNamara, cofounder of Goodhue Wind Truth and one of several local residents who attended the MPUC meeting Thursday. She said the decision not to recertify New Era's wind farm vindicates months of hard work by citizens in the county.

She credits much of the MPUC's decision on testimony and information brought forward by grassroots activists.

"The credibility of the citizens far outweighed what the developer brought forward," McNamara said.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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