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.”
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.”
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.