The eagles of Goodhue County got a reprieve Thursday, when state regulators again delayed construction of a bitterly contested wind farm near Red Wing.
After hours of testimony, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decided to "kick the can down the road," as one member said, by reopening the project to another round of fact-finding that will review its legal status and other issues — including its potential impact on eagles and other wildlife.
The decision means another delay for the 48-turbine project, which has already been bogged down for four years by fierce local opposition, lawsuits and most recently by its threat to the healthy community of eagles that nest in and around the project's footprint.
Still, neither side got what it wanted from Thursday's meeting.
Local citizens who packed the hearing room said they had hoped the PUC would pull the plug on the project altogether. An attorney for the project's owner asked the PUC to approve its plan to protect eagles, bats and other wildlife — without that, she said, the project remains in a regulatory limbo that scares off potential investors. She also asked commissioners to transfer the state permit to the current owner, Peter Mastic of New Era Wind Farm. In October, Mastic acquired 100 percent ownership from a wind company owned by Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens. Mastic did not return a phone call Thursday seeking comment.
But there is just too much uncertainty, the three commissioners said. Two of the five members were not in attendance.
PUC chair Beverly Heydinger listed several hurdles. It's not clear, for one, whether the project's new ownership changes its status as a community-based energy development, which requires that 51 percent of the financial benefits stay in the local community. New Era's contract with Xcel Energy to purchase power is also in question, as is its construction timeline. Nor is it clear that it can build the project and abide by restrictions to protect eagles that could be required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
All those issues will be revisited in the process to decide whether the PUC will grant the project a new certificate of need, Heydinger said. That will also give opponents a chance to weigh in, she said.
The Goodhue County project has attracted national attention because it is one of the first wind farms to ask the federal government for a permit that would allow it to legally kill eagles that fly into the turbines. Such "incidental take" permits are a new and hotly contested effort by the Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the conflicting demands of renewable energy with protecting birds and bats.
The New Era wind farm would kill, at most, eight to 15 eagles a year — a number that would not harm the local population, federal officials said in a recent letter to state regulators. The Fish and Wildlife Service said its estimate does not include possible strategies to reduce the number of eagles killed and, that if a permit is eventually granted, the goal would be a much lower figure.
Exactly how the wind farm would be designed to minimize the deaths would be negotiated between the company and federal wildlife officials.