The eagles in Goodhue County won a victory Thursday.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission pulled the plug on a controversial wind energy project that was stalled for years by a fierce and well-organized local opposition that successfully used its potential impact on eagles to help derail it.
Concerns about the eagles and other wildlife emerged late in the development process, well after the PUC had given the company legal authority and a permit to build. But it's an example of how concerns about wildlife and other environmental issues have become a concern nationally. Once largely ignored, the impact on birds and bats, which die by the thousands when they run into turbine blades, has now become a focus for both the industry and conservation groups nationally.
This project was notable because the citizens who opposed it documented the presence of eagles and other birds and nests within the project's footprint and brought it to the attention of state and federal wildlife agencies, said Kelly Fuller, wind campaign coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy, a national wildlife advocacy group. As a result, the PUC sent the company "back to the drawing board" to develop a plan to protect the wildlife, a yearlong delay that proved detrimental.
"I think it points to how important it is that citizens get out there and get involved," she said.
The developer, New Era Wind Farm, could try to revive the $180 million project, its attorney said. But Thursday, PUC commissioners voted unanimously not to extend the company's legal authority to build the 48 wind towers in the county. The clearly frustrated commissioners cited ongoing questions about the company's ownership, the status of its contract with Xcel, and its failure to come up with a plan to protect birds and bats from turbine blades.
"It doesn't get more final than that," said Christy Rosenquist, one member of the Coalition for Sensible Siting, the grass-roots citizens group that sprung up to oppose the project. They also objected to the siting of the project because it was too close to homes and because of concerns about noise, shadow flicker from the blades and health impacts.
Todd Guerrero, the attorney representing New Era Wind Farm, said the PUC's decision "doesn't necessarily kill the project." The developer could come back to the PUC if it resolves a legal dispute with Xcel, which filed suit against New Era last week. The wind developer failed to deliver on its power delivery commitment within the agreed deadlines, the suit said.
"It's the delays that harmed this project," Guerrero said. "You had people ready to build it, and were not able to." The owner, Peter Mastic, has invested $15 million so far, Guerrero said.
The wind farm near Red Wing was proposed four years ago. It was first delayed by fights over how far the giant towers had to be from property lines, but the developer overcame those in court. But when the company said in filings that there would be few wildlife impacts, local opponents started documenting the presence of eagles and other wildlife that could be affected.
"That was the turning point," said Mary Hartman, one of the opponents.
The dispute drew national attention from conservation groups concerned about the design and placement of wind farms. After the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also raised concerns, the company agreed to apply for a federal permit that would legally allow it to kill the birds. It's a new strategy by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the often-lethal conflict between birds and turbine blades. Though several are pending, none has been granted.
The Goodhue project was the first in Minnesota to raise questions about its impact on wildlife. But in recent years the DNR has developed a more rigorous review of wind farms. The DNR has intervened in several, prompting changes in their design and the number of turbines in order to protect bats, eagles, shrikes, native prairies and more.
"The wind industry takes their wildlife and bat issues very seriously," said Beth Soholt, executive director of Wind on the Wires, an industry group. "They are doing a lot of work to understand the issues and put plans in place that will allow protection and responsible wind development."