The Freeborn Wind Farm, one of the most contested wind-energy projects in Minnesota, was approved Thursday by state utility regulators.
The wind farm proposed for Freeborn County in southern Minnesota sparked significant opposition from local residents concerned about turbine noise and other issues. A state judge in May recommended that Freeborn Wind should not be granted a permit, saying it failed to show it could meet Minnesota's noise standards.
But after Freeborn Wind's developer earlier this week proposed "special conditions" to meet state noise standards, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted 5-0 to grant a permit.
The vote came after both the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Department of Commerce had essentially signed off on the "special conditions" crafted by Invenergy, Freeborn Wind's Chicago-based developer.
"We are very pleased," Dan Litchfield, an Invenergy senior manager, said after Thursday's decision. "The commission very carefully reviewed the facts of the case and the law."
Dorenne Hansen, leader of a group that has opposed Freeborn Wind, said the PUC "totally ignored" the state judge's recommendation. She said state regulators "asked what [Invenergy] wanted, but they didn't ask the people who live near the project what they wanted."
Freeborn Wind would include 42 turbines southeast of Albert Lea, its footprint encompassing just over 250 homes. Another 58 turbines would be located across the border in Worth County, Iowa. All 100 turbines were originally slated for Minnesota, but Invenergy moved some after Hansen and a group of local residents formed the Association of Freeborn County Landowners to oppose the project.
The $300 million wind farm would produce up to 200 megawatts of electricity, and it's expected to be eventually owned by Xcel Energy.
The Freeborn project marks the first "contested case" over a wind farm before the PUC, prompting the appointment of an administrative law judge to sort out the facts and make recommendations. The judge's ruling isn't binding on the PUC, but such recommendations often carry weight with the commission.
In May, Judge LauraSue Schlatter recommended that Freeborn Wind be denied an operating permit and concluded that the state's noise standard for wind farms applies to background noise combined with wind noise. The Freeborn Wind project wouldn't completely meet that standard, she ruled.
The decision rocked Invenergy and the entire wind-energy industry, which has argued that the PUC has previously interpreted the standard to apply only to wind noise. A rule based on total noise would hinder the growth of wind power in Minnesota, the industry and clean energy advocates have argued.
Schlatter cited the MPCA in her interpretation of the state's noise standard. And last week, in a filing with the PUC, the MPCA said the state's limit for wind-farm noise indeed applies not only to any turbine noise, but also includes background noise such as road traffic, bird song and wind gusts.
However, the MPCA said it supported an effort by the Minnesota Department of Commerce to find — as the commerce department has called it — a "middle ground" in the noise flap.
Commerce, which represents the public before the PUC, proposed allowing a 1-decibel sound increase above the current standard, an amount that it has called insignificant to the human ear.
Earlier this week, Invenergy filed a proposal with the PUC that would include noise allowances of no more than 3 decibels above the standard.
Both the commerce department and the MPCA agreed with Invenergy's proposal. "In the scientific community, 3 decibels is considered below the (human) perception level," Frank Kohlasch, the MPCA's air assessment manager told the PUC.
The PUC agreed with the special provisions, and commission member Dan Lipschultz said that the commission is "not setting a noise standard." Other commissioners agreed.
However, Carol Overland, attorney for the Association of Freeborn County Landowners, told commissioners they essentially were making a rule. "It's arbitrary and capricious on its face," she said.
Minnesota is the nation's seventh-largest producer of wind power, and the state gets at least 18 percent of its electricity from wind energy.
The PUC's hearing room in St. Paul was packed Thursday for the Freeborn Wind decision. At least 30 opponents of the project showed up, many wearing red T-shirts with an anti-wind farm slogan. At least two dozen supporters, some from Iowa, wore green shirts bearing the message "Yes."