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T. Boone Pickens: Tilting at Minnesota windmills?

Financier T. Boone Pickens speaking during the World Business Forum in New York in 2009.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Financier T. Boone Pickens speaking during the World Business Forum in New York in 2009.

WASHINGTON — Get ready for Minnesota's next big battle over the environment.

It's already heating up in the rolling countryside of southeastern Minnesota's Goodhue County, and it's about to get a lot hotter, thanks to the involvement of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and one of America's richest men, billionaire Texas oil tycoon, corporate raider and born-again environmentalist T. Boone Pickens.

It figures to be a doozy, pitting neighbor against neighbor in a debate over the economic, environmental and social impact of a giant wind farm that would turn 32,000 acres of the county's densely populated farmland into a Don Quixote-like landscape dotted with 400-foot tall wind turbines, capped by rotors the size of football fields.

The project's Minnesota-based developers say it will bring job creation, economic development and millions of dollars in local tax revenues and payments to farmers, while opponents contend it will adversely affect property values and possibly endanger the health and well being of local residents and even bald eagles nesting in the nearby Mississippi River Valley.

At the same time, the project could boost Pawlenty's presidential ambitions by teaming up with the controversial Pickens, who says he's coming to Minnesota to join Pawlenty for a joint announcement of the massive project, which would use turbines Pickens intended to use to build the world's largest wind farm in the Texas panhandle, a project he put on hold last July because existing transmission-line capacity wasn't available and he couldn't get financing.

And if that's not enough, the fate of the project could also help Congress and the Obama administration decide if such wind energy projects — which supporters claim can help reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil, slow global warming and create jobs for American workers — deserve a share of federal stimulus spending, or whether they're just green promises blowing in the wind.

52 giant wind turbines
The budding controversy was touched off in October 2008 by a Red Wing company's announcement that it planned to install 52 giant wind turbines in five Goodhue County townships that would generate 78 megawatts of power, enough to provide electricity to 23,000 homes. The company, Goodhue Wind LLC, says it would create 150 to 200 construction jobs for up to 12 months, bring in $6 million in tax revenue over the next 25 years, and pay farmers who agree to have the turbines built on their property about $30,000 over the same period.

Goodhue Wind is one of five Minnesota community wind-energy companies managed by National Wind LLC of Minneapolis, which also manages six similar companies in Iowa, North and South Dakota, and Colorado.

But hundreds of local residents turned out at public meetings in Mazeppa and Red Wing in March to raise questions about the project's environmental impact and economic viability, and dozens more expressed their concerns in blogs and letters to the editor before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission quit accepting public comment last Friday.

On March 4, some 200 people met for three hours in Mazeppa with officials from the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Goodhue Wind. And on March 15, the Goodhue County Advisory Committee held a six-hour meeting in Red Wing attended by some 200 people, the largest number to appear before the committee in about 15 years. It heard speeches from some 60 residents, most of whom oppose the construction of the wind farm, before adjourning without any agreement.

Among those attending the earlier meeting were Bruce McNamara, who farms in Belle Creek township, where one of the wind farms would be located, and his wife Marie, who said in a telephone interview on Sunday that the controversy "is terrible and getting worse. It's tearing our community apart. People are not talking to each other at church and in the schools. And business people are afraid to come out and speak because they're afraid they'll lose business."

The Rochester Post Bulletin reported on March 5 that Marie McNamara "presented the panel with a CD containing '90 to 100' documents about health concerns related to wind farms [and] also had a large graphic that claimed Goodhue Wind's site map was missing homes and had incorrect placement of its wind turbines in its proposal."

'Not very responsive'
She said Sunday that the Public Utilities Commission, which has held four informational meetings on the Goodhue Wind plan, "was not very responsive" to public concerns about the accuracy of the developers' data concerning wind measurements and health issues, especially the distance or setback of the towers from residences.

According to the newspaper, Zumbrota Mayor Rich Bauer requested that Goodhue Wind consider a two-mile setback around every Goodhue County town or city to allow for future economic growth. "The public process is working," he said. "We had a great turnout and lots of good questions.… Hopefully, it gets us to a better solution."

Windmills currently dot the Grand Meadow area of southern Minnesota.
Photo by Joe Kimball
Wind turbines currently dot the Grand Meadow area of southern Minnesota.

Asked if the newspaper's description of her as one of the "outspoken critics" of the plan who said that some people left the meeting "thinking their concerns were falling on deaf ears," she said it was, but added that at she is "very disappointed" in the media's overall coverage of the project.

Her husband was even more outspoken, according to the Rochester newspaper's account of the meeting. "We've dealt with these guys for a year and a half and they've still got the same bag of goods," he told the newspaper. "Common sense isn't one of them."

And in its report on the March 15 meeting in Red Wing, the Rochester newspaper reported that Steve Groth, speaking for a citizens group called Goodhue Wind Truth, "asked the county to impose setbacks of at least a half mile from residences and is seeking a one-year moratorium on wind farm construction." It added, "A spokesman for Goodhue Wind opposed both measures…"

A Red Wing attorney who is one of 20 local investors in the Goodhue Wind project, who agreed to speak if granted anonymity, said Tuesday that he had just received a letter from Goodhue Wind that acknowledged public opposition, and added, "If we're unable to obtain the required permit, we will not be able to develop the project." But he said he also received a dividend check for 40 percent of his initial investment of $20,000, and still believes the project will go ahead.

But probably the most intriguing aspect of the Goodhue County project, and one likely to generate even more controversy, is the involvement of Pickens, who told me last month in an interview in his Dallas office that he had spoken with Pawlenty in early March and "told him where we are on the project."

'Nothing's set yet'
He added, "He's been down here to see me and we'll make a joint announcement and I'll come up there."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

But Pickens said he was not yet ready to go into detail on the project, and his spokesman, Jay Rosser, said Tuesday. "Right now, nothing is on the books for us in terms of announcing a Minnesota wind project. We're working feverishly on it, but nothing's set yet."

Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Chuck Burdick, project developer for Goodhue Wind, said Monday, "I have not heard any such scheduled event," when asked about a joint announcement by Pawlenty and Pickens. But he noted that the American Wind Alliance, the wind power industry's lobbying arm, is involved in the Goodhue County project and that Pickens' Mesa Power Group is a member of the Alliance.

The 81-year-old Pickens, who is ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 117th richest American, launched a $58 million advertising plan in July, 2008, to promote the Pickens Plan, an energy policy aimed at reducing the United States' addiction to foreign oil. The plan is a two-part approach aimed at mandating greater use of natural gas as a transportation fuel and exploiting alternative sources such as wind and solar power.

But he told me last month that the second part of his plan, which calls for building a series of giant wind farms stretching from Texas across the Great Plains to the Canadian border, is on hold because of transmission costs and other problems, including finding rights of way. He also complained that he's having a hard time getting his message across in Washington.

"I tell you, we've got a plan and this country desperately needs an energy plan, and I know what I'm talking about," said Pickens, who pointed out that he drives a Honda GX Civic, the only natural gas-powered car made in the United States. "But they don't get it in D.C.; it's too big for them. In Washington, you can't sit down for a 30-minute discussion on energy. Nobody's willing to talk about the fact that foreign oil is costing us $500 billion a year."

That may be one reason why Pickens hopes the citizens of Goodhue County and similar communities will listen to him.

Albert Eisele is founding editor of The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress.

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Comments (12)

As big a fan as I am of "green energy," I can't help but recall that this is the very same T. Boone Pickens who "swiftboated" John Kerry.

I would caution everyone to take a hard view of anything Boone Pickens wants done.

several months ago t.boone pickens put his windmill farm up for sale as he realised that it was a money loosing enterprise. it now seems he has found willing minnesota dupes - ops i mean investers to pawn off his windmills.

When Pickens announced his grand plan, I wrote an editorial describing it as a taxpayer funded boondoggle, which it was. Pickens is now stuck with a big order for GE turbines, although they let him off half of it.
He has come to Minnesota with his carpet bag hoping for federal and state taxpayer goodies.
There is a role for wind but it has little to do with our foreign oil dependence.
In 2009, ERCOT reports that all Texas wind had a capacity factor of 8.7% and wind supplied 706MW of Texas total 72,000MW grid capacity. That's 1% of Texas electric power.

Mr. Pickens, here's your sales pitch: "We have to free ourselves from our oil addiction or the terrorists will come over to your house and blow you up!"

The money we pay for Oil goes to Saudi-backed Muslim extremist schools in Pakistan and the middle east. Our tax money goes to the military to fight these extremists. We're paying for both sides in the war on terror. What part of "that's stupid" does Washington not understand?

What happened to the idea of siting wind-towers at the point of electrical power use? One or two, for instance, on a farm that would then have an independent energy supply. Or 20 to power a small town?

People that live in the Goodhue area, other than the hard core farmers, do not want this project. The hard core farmers want it because they see their land as a way for them to make money. To them it is all about money. People that move into the country for the scenery, should not have to look at another farmers turbines, no matter how much they make.

A lot of people in the country have small plots of land, under 40 acres, and can not get a turbine on their property. Why should they have to put up with looking at turbines, when they will not make anything off them? The greedy farmers get all the money.

The hole tax arguement is also crazy. This $175,000,000 wind project will pay county taxes of less than $400,000 a year of taxes. That is a drop in the bucket. Goodhue county does not need another drop in the bucket. We need some real money. We should tax the crap out of these wind farms.

Bernice, wind doesn't work that way. You would need a large backup fossil fuel generator on that farm for the usual time when the wind was too low or two high. And don't put the turbine within a mile of the farm house; the noise will drive out the occupants.
As to small towns it would be a good way to consolidate them, away from the noise and those repeating shadows.

When do we find out whether / how much Pickens has donated to Pawlenty's leadership PAC?

I think it is important to talk about what a wind developer, such as Pickens, is seeking as a return on his investment.

The wind farm's cost of $175,000,000 is written off over the first six years of the project through a Federal depreciation mechanism available to these high end investments.

Investment banks and c-corps like Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and AIG invested in wind projects, and used these depreciation vehicles as write offs, against profits, when they were making their huge windfalls before the banking collapse.

Pickens is now trying to re-inflate the industrial wind bubble, because according to industrial wind developers' numbers, Pickens could see profits of $19,500,000 to $30,450,000 per year. Or, I should say the wind project developer, Goodhue Wind LLC, would see those numbers, and depending on Pickens position his investment would likely enjoy the write-offs plus 20% interest on investment for the first six to ten years.

It needs to be pointed out that shared revenues are often tax-payer money, and not wind developers paying the community. It also needs to be pointed out that a farmer or land owner who signs an industrial wind development lease is already over a contractual barrel. The money they receive is usually less than 3% of the turbines annual income, for the loss of significant property rights. There is very little if any consumer protection for a farmer or land owner who is sweet-talked by a wind developer into signing an unfair wind lease.

The equitable division of a "free" resource would allow everyone in a community the economic benefit of this resource without such a profit driven middleman.

Energy independence will eventually mean grid independence. Home solar and small home-scale wind receive only a third of what an industrial scale Pickens gets as write offs.

Industrial wind developers, wind lobbyists, and sadly many well intentioned environmentalists believe industrial wind turbines are, and will reduce green house gas emissions from coal burning powerplants. This coal burning reduction alone will justify the industrialization of millions of acres of rural Minnesota and every midwestern state with 400 foot plus tall wind turbines plus substations and powerlines.

Each 400 foot tall industrial wind turbine should require 80 to 100 acres, or 5 to 7 rotar lengths between machines, in order to maximize generation potential. Wisconsin wind resources are hoped to reach 29% of nameplate capacity(they fall short!). Minnesota should be around 35%-40% of nameplate. This includes nighttime generation when demand is low and generation needs are met by 24/7 base load generators that can't be shut off.

Everything an industrial wind developer says needs to be put through a truth-in-action filter which pulls out the realities from the marketed averages. The bigger question is will industrial scale wind be there when it is needed to reduce the burning of industrial utility coal? They won't tell you, but please keep buying the green credits at nameplate capacity.

Small scale wind and solar will, because they reduce the demand for coal generated electricity.

Remember Mr. Pickens, it is all about supply and demand.

Check the PUC docket filings -- Commerce has been investigating the C-BED status of this project, the organization, and finds it wanting. See for yourself at the PUC site, www.puc.state.mn.us and search for dockets 09-1186; 09-1349 and 09-1350, look for MOES Reply Comments and Staff Briefing Papers up at the top.

The consensus seems to be that we should generate 25% of our power from renewables, mostly wind. To meet that goal, we will need to build about twelve gigawatts of wind generation in the midwest.

When is the media going to mention the NREL report that says that we will need twelve monster power lines slicing through the midwest to move power from the wind farms to population centers in the east? Most of the twelve will traverse Minnesota.

Kay,

Your tinking is way off base pertaining tot he "hard core farmers". We are a 4th generation farm family in Goodhue. We, like MAJORITY of the "hard core" or REAL farmers who live in this area ARE NOT for this project! We are doing our best to fight for our rights and our neighbor's rights (smal parcel owners).

There wind developer's claim they have 215 participants, which in reality is only appoximately 40 parcels of land signed into their project. Several are small parcels under 40 acres and a few larger land owners. Also, out of the "hard core" farmers in this project don't even live in the county they signed into the project (absentee landowner). They will not live next to a turbine, but the neighbor will.

Another note, 3 out of every 4 farmers DID NOT SIGN into the project. Also, oout of the largest landowners, only 1 signed! There are more than triple the non-participants who DO NOT support this project. We are too populated with homes (5-8 houses per section). Wind farms cannot safely be sited in our area!

Please don't set blame on the hard core farmer! We work very hard to feed America RESPONSIBLY! Most of us, especially the family farmer; we care out people, community, environment and our livestock!