A judge’s recommendation that a proposed Minnesota wind farm be nixed over turbine noise has drawn a flurry of opposition from the wind-power industry, which fears a chilling effect on development.
In a rare move, Administrative Law Judge LauraSue Schlatter last month recommended that the Freeborn Wind farm be denied an operating permit, saying the southern Minnesota project failed to show it can meet state noise standards.
Freeborn Wind’s developer, Invenergy, has objected, saying Schlatter’s interpretation of state noise rules would be “impossible” to meet. Last week, two wind-industry trade groups and three of Invenergy’s competitors also filed objections to Schlatter’s recommendation, as did four clean-energy and environmental groups.
The judge’s “interpretation of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) noise standards would have a detrimental impact on other current and future wind-energy projects throughout the state,” the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy wrote in its objection.
Administrative law judges like Schlatter are appointed to contested cases before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which will eventually vote whether to approve the project. The proposed Freeborn Wind farm is the first contested PUC case involving a wind farm. The project southeast of Albert Lea has drawn opposition from some local residents over fears of excessive noise and other quality-of-life issues.
The $300 million Freeborn Wind project would include 42 turbines in Freeborn County and another 82 turbines across the state border in Worth County, Iowa. The project was initially supposed to be solely in Minnesota, but Chicago-based Invenergy moved a big chunk of it due to opposition from the Association of Freeborn County Landowners.
There’s no specific Minnesota rule for wind-farm noise, though there are general MPCA noise standards. Schlatter concluded the MPCA standard applies to total noise: background noise — like roadway traffic — combined with any wind-turbine sounds. Invenergy and the wind industry contend that the MPCA standard applies to wind-turbine sounds alone and say that’s how the PUC has historically viewed the issue.
“If the (PUC) adopted a ‘total noise’ standard, such an interpretation would effectively ban future wind development in Minnesota, and potentially provide anti-wind activists a tool to attempt to adversely affect the operation of existing projects,” the American Wind Energy Association wrote.
But the Association of Freeborn County Landowners said in a filing that “there is no evidence that profitable wind projects” can’t be sited in Minnesota with existing standards. “Wind developers are up in arms, wringing their hands, and quaking, arguing for continuance of prior lax rule interpretations, improper siting procedures and ineffective regulatory oversight.”
The Minnesota Department of Commerce, which represents the public interest before the PUC, said in a recent filing that it’s trying to stake out a “middle ground,” recommending that the PUC “limit a wind project’s total turbine-only noise” to a certain decibel level.
Still, the commerce department concluded that “interpreting the [state’s] noise standard as a limit on total noise that applies to all sources is not an impractical or novel regulatory scheme.”
Other parties that have filed PUC briefs opposing Schlatter’s decision include: wind-energy developers Apex Clean Energy, RES Group and EDF Renewables; wind-turbine manufacturer and Freeborn Wind supplier Vestas; the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum; and Wind on the Wires, a Minnesota nonprofit that represents wind and solar developers as well as clean-energy advocacy groups.