A wind farm proposed for western Minnesota will move ahead with a new owner and developer after Minnesota utility regulators took issue with the hiring practices of the former developer.

The Bitter Root wind farm near Canby was proposed in 2017 by RES, a British renewable-energy developer. But the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) — in an uncommon move — held up the project in December after complaints by Minnesota labor unions.

Nonunion RES initially challenged the PUC’s decision, but instead agreed in late March to sell the Bitter Root project to Connecticut-based Avangrid Renewables. On Thursday, the PUC voted to close out RES’ petition on the project and start over with Avangrid.

“I am pleased that Avangrid took over this project,” PUC Commissioner Dan Lipschultz said at Thursday’s meeting. “We have an alignment between the socioeconomic benefits and environmental benefits of this project.”

Unions have supported Avangrid’s efforts. The company “has been a good partner to work with here in Minnesota,” said Kevin Pranis, Minnesota and North Dakota marketing manager for the Laborers union. “We believe [Bitter Root] will be a union job.”

Paul Copleman, an Avangrid spokesman, said that while it’s too early to comment on labor arrangements for Bitter Root, “we have a good history of working with [unions] to build projects all over the country.”

Plans for the Bitter Root project have called for 44 wind turbines that together would have the capacity to produce 150 megawatts of electricity — a fair-sized wind farm. Copleman said Avangrid is re-evaluating the project’s layout and timeline.

The Laborers union, representing several construction unions, had asserted the socio-economic benefits of RES’ Bitter Root would have been “substantially diminished” by a lack of Minnesota workers. RES has used nonunion trades workers on other wind farms in Minnesota, and the Laborers said those workers are mostly from out of state.

Both union and nonunion contractors have built wind farms in Minnesota, which is among the nation’s top-10 states for wind-energy production.

The PUC has not commonly waded deeply into local hiring issues on renewable-energy construction projects. But in December, the PUC voted unanimously to postpone approving RES’ Bitter Root application, saying it required a “contested case” to examine the socio-economic effects of the project.

A contested case proceeding entails the appointment of a state administrative law judge in a court-like proceeding with the rights of discovery. The process can take several months.

Avangrid doesn’t have to go through the contested case, though it still must get a certificate of need from the PUC.

RES had argued that it was being singled out by the PUC over the Bitter Root project. In RES’ initial challenge, the company argued the PUC erred in concluding that construction labor practices are relevant to obtaining a permit for a large wind-farm project in Minnesota.

 

mike.hughlett@startribune.com 612-673-7003