Proposed South Dakota wind farm faces group opposition

Source: By Peter Harriman, Sioux Falls Argus Leader • Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2014


Deep divisions over the proposed Hyperion oil refinery that split Union County several years ago may be on the point of being mirrored in southern Lincoln County, this time as it relates to a massive proposed wind farm.

The planned Dakota Power Community Wind project could sprawl over more than 23,000 acres and generate as much as 1,000 megawatts from as many as 500 turbines. It has potential to give a shot in the arm to the state’s wind industry and create economic opportunities for investors and some landowners.

The community wind company will hold a public meeting 7 p.m. today at the Lennox High School cafeteria for people interested in investing in the project.

At the same time, a group of about 10 landowners, organized under the banner of a nonprofit called We-Care SD, hope to convince neighbors the project is not an unmixed blessing. We-Care SD will host a meeting at 7 p.m. today at the Hudson Community Center.

Two hundred ninety chairs have been set up in the center, according to Bonnie Solem of We-Care. “We’re hoping to fill every one of them,” she said.

Dan Schleck, a lawyer specializing in real estate, land use issues and alternative energy for the Minneapolis law firm Halleland Habicht, and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, will speak about the need to weigh carefully all the effects of such a large development.

“The people at We-Care who contacted me are looking for some balanced information, information that may be different from the public relations machines that get behind these projects to solicit investors and landowners,” Schleck said. “Not everything is going to be flowers and roses. There are some negative things and some positive things. The real idea here is to not rush into anything without having enough information.”

We-Care is concerned about quality of life and harmful economic affects of a giant wind farm on the Lincoln County rural landscape.

But Brian Minish of Lennox, a Dakota Power Community Wind board member, counters that the project is a linchpin to get South Dakota wind energy projects connected to the planned Rock Island Clean Line, a transmission expressway that would send electrical power from the Midwest to the East Coast. Such a state-of-the-art transmission conduit would eliminate the most daunting hurdle facing the regional wind energy industry — getting the power to market. It could dramatically accelerate wind power developments at Turkey Ridge, Tripp and Gregory and eventually throughout South Dakota, he said.

“If we can get that superhighway opened up to Lincoln County, it’s a good opportunity to head West River, then head north and catch all that resource west of the river,” Minish said.

Even under an ideal timetable, wind turbines would not appear on the Lincoln County landscape before 2018. The developer still is seeking to enroll landowners. On 23,000 acres, turbines could generate 300 megawatts, less than one-third of the most ambitious target for the project. By comparison, the state’s entire wind energy industry produces 748 megawatts, according to the South Dakota Wind Energy Association.

The Lincoln County commission became aware of the wind farm plans about a year ago, said Commissioner David Gillespie, who represents the southern part of the county. The project has not yet developed to the point the commission or the county’s planning and zoning staff are reviewing it, he said, but he is aware of We-Care’s opposition.

“I am planning on going to the meeting in Hudson,” Gillespie said.

In addition to seeking additional landowners, the developer is raising capital for the project this summer. It hopes to raise between $1.4 million and $4 million. Minish characterizes community wind group as a development entity that will design the Lincoln County project, secure the necessary local, state and federal permits and get the power sold.

“We will get it ready to be attractive to an outside investor. It will be a $1 billion to $2 billion project, and that’s not something we can do in South Dakota,” he said. They think a maximally sized project could provide $6 million annually in payments to landowners, $5 million to the state and $3 million to the county in tax revenue.”

There are parallels to Hyperion in the scenario. It, too, was a proposed multi-billion-dollar energy project that depended upon leveraging a refinery design, permit acquisition and local support to gain the billions needed to build a new refinery to process petroleum from Canada’s tar sands.

A notable distinction, says Minish, is that the wind project sprang from a group of Lincoln County landowners interested in developing their wind resources, in contrast to the Texas developers who envisioned Hyperion but ultimately abandoned the scheme and let their own Union County land leases expire in 2012.

In Lincoln County, “It’s the landowners who started this project. It’s for their benefit,” Minish said. There is another South Dakota tie. The landowners are working with Aberdeen-based Dakota Plains Energy, South Dakota’s lone wind farm developer, Minish said.

But Hyperion, when it still appeared viable, fractured relationships between Union County neighbors who favored or opposed the new refinery, and We-Care’s Solem sees the potential for similar division between opponents such as herself and proponents of the wind farm.

“Sitting in church next to some of them has become awkward,” she acknowledged. “All we can do is agree to disagree on the subject, and go on.”

Emily Plucker, another We-Care member, said, “I am all for renewable energy. I just think it needs to be in the right place.” The relatively densely populated southern Lincoln County rural landscape, where as many as three to four families per section live on working farms and country acreages, is not that place, she said.

There is no way to get adequate setbacks for turbines from many homes to ensure rural residents are not afflicted by turbines’ noise and by the strobe-like shadow flicker of sunlight through turbine blades, Sorem and Plucker said.

Plucker worries a huge Lincoln County wind farm would reduce property values for nearby residents.

“If I could pick a home with turbines or without, I know which one I’d pick,” she said. She’s a member of the Canton school board and lives about six miles due west of Newton Hills State Park. While northern Lincoln County’s population is booming, Plucker worries about attracting families with school-age children to southern Lincoln County if it is covered with turbines.

“How do we get young families to the area? I think it closes the door to a lot of opportunity. Would you want to live in such an area if you could live 10 miles to the north without them?” she asked.

Minish points out California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory did a study of California property values that shows wind farms had no impact.

It’s a good study, Schleck agreed, but it may have covered too broad an area to assess the local effect of wind farms on nearby property values.

“It might be more of a 10,000-foot view than a look at the impacts of any individual project. There are other reputable sources that say there are impacts,” Schleck said. If that’s the case, on a project like the proposed Lincoln County wind farm, “You need to look at all the impacts on people who are participating and not participating, and make sure everybody’s need is addressed,” Schleck said.

Plucker doesn’t want to tell people who favor a wind farm what to do with their land, she insisted, “but you’ve got to think about your neighbors. There’s too much at stake.”

While she didn’t pay much attention to the Hyperion controversy when it was ongoing, “Now that I’m in this, yeah, I can see why they felt threatened,” Plucker said of refinery foes.

“To me, feeling threatened is a way to explain the way I feel every day,” Plucker said. “Somebody is coming in and is possibly going to ruin our livelihood. To me, it’s scary.”