It’s not the biggest wind energy project on the drawing boards in Minnesota, but keep an eye on the plan to put up 40 to 60 turbines on 15,000 acres north of Paynesville in central Minnesota if you want to see how green energy is starting to run into community objections.
The developer, Geronimo Wind Energy, is holding a couple of open houses Thursday (noon and 6 p.m. at the Paynesville Middle School gym) to answer residents’ questions about the project as the 95-megawatt plan wends through the state permitting process. Geronimo would like to start construction next year.
The company touts the benefits — $22 million in production payments to local governments and landowners over 20 years and enough U.S.-produced clean energy to power 19,000 homes.
But nearby residents have brought up a flurry of questions: intrusion into the countryside, flickering shadows of turning blades, wildlife protection, values of nearby property, where the profits go, health, noise, effect on pets, TV reception and more. Some have pushed for a Stearns County moratorium on large wind generation, a move that county commissioners will consider Tuesday in St. Cloud. Whether that would stop the project is unclear, something the state Public Utilities Commission would likely determine.
But there are five more wind projects planned in Stearns County, some by Geronimo, some by other developers. Backers say concerns are misplaced and overstated or can be dealt with. And with an oil mess in the Gulf of Mexico and carbon dioxide spewing from coal plants, they have a strong case when viewed from 30,000 feet.
But on the ground, from Cape Cod to Hawaii, people nonetheless are getting hackles up over the prospects of green energy. It seems worth sorting out how communities can determine the principles that should guide local energy questions.
If there’s no other reason to focus on the Paynesville plan, consider that 32 years ago landowners and others were protesting fiercely in some of these same fields and getting arrested by phalanxes of state troopers Gov. Rudy Perpich assigned to protect utility surveyors. They were fighting the long-distance direct-current transmission line that stands today, its towers marching across Pope, Stearns and other counties, bringing electricity from North Dakota coal plants to the Twin Cities.
(Among those who watched closely was Carleton College professor Paul Wellstone, who later wrote a book about the process and moved on to larger public policy arenas.)
I was also among those who watched closely, as a reporter for the St. Cloud Times. And what I remember well is the level of frustration that built up on all sides. Ultimately, despite scores of public hearings and meetings, there was a sense of complete mistrust among all parties — landowners, utilities, media, law enforcement, energy officials.
Protesters fought big-energy then, and similar issues are being raised again, similar delays requested. There are differences of course — landowners directly affected stand to gain, clean energy has a national imperative.
And the state’s process for examining wind energy requests in the past year or two has added more requirements for developers to address the environmental concerns raised by community residents.
But it’s not clear the community’s ability to talk to itself has changed.
A brief exchange between a state official and a resident at a public meeting April 19 in Lake Henry captured the failure of dialog for me: When the state official promised that written comments arriving after a deadline would still be taken into account, the resident offered this:
I know, but I don’t believe a lot of that stuff anymore.
This Ground Level project is looking for places in Minnesota where people as communities are addressing issues that concern them. Energy questions are among the thorniest because project benefits are spread widely and consequences are focused. Are there examples of communities that have succeeded? Even if not, what are the principles that can help evaluate a project at the community level? Size? Whether benefits are kept in the community?
You can find all the plans and proceedings of the Public Utilities Commission for the Paynesville project here.