Stearns County lets wind energy proceed

Stearns County commissioners this morning decided not to approve the moratorium on large wind energy operations that a number of residents had requested.

In turning down the effort to slow wind energy production, commissioners in one of Minnesota’s largest counties also decided to reactivate a committee to watch over the issue and specifically requested that people opposed to wind projects be appointed to help.

That struck me as significant for a couple reasons, especially after I noted in a blog post here last week that I wasn’t convinced Stearns County residents had learned much since the 1970s power line war in terms of talking to themselves about energy issues. And there are proposed wind projects all over the map of the 150,000-resident county in central Minnesota.

The immediate point of contention for wind energy in Stearns County is a 95-megawatt Geronimo Wind Energy project proposed for some 15,000 acres north of Paynesville, and board chair Mark Sakry said it was the most divisive issue he’d seen in 22 years on the board.

“These are very divisive issues,” Sakry said. “It sometimes pits neighbor against neighbor, sometimes family member against family member.”

The list of wind energy issues that residents brought to the board was a long one: turbine noise, flickering shadows, concern about emergency helicopters landing, distance of turbines from nearby houses, potential bird deaths, wear and tear on roads, emergency communications interference and property values.

But the board essentially determined that those are or can be taken into account by the existing state permit process. And clearly renewable energy sources are appealing more than ever these days.

“The disaster in the Gulf is further proof we have to find alternative sources. It’s going to help our country’s national security,” Sakry said.

Gary Reeck would tell you he knows that. He’s a dairy farmer north of Paynesville whose family has been farming there for 135 years. He lives in the footprint of the Geronimo project and, in fact, at one point several years ago was exploring the idea of putting a wind turbine on his property.

But while he has neighbors who stand to gain $10,000 to $15,000 a year for playing host to a 400-foot turbine, he hasn’t signed on and has been vocal in his opposition to the project. He considers it trading the kind of pollution we get from oil and coal for visual pollution that threatens to wreck the countryside.

He understands the green appeal of wind energy but worries about the corporate approach of Genonimo. He also sees the division in the community.

“There’s big bad blood. It’s turned into people flicking each other off, turning their backs. It makes me sick,” he told me on the phone today.

“It’s changed our community forever.”

Which brings me back to the county board’s decision to solicit members among wind opponents for the wind energy committee it plans to reconstitute. Geronimo has three other projects on the drawing board in Stearns County, and the board also today gave approval for a smaller community-based wind project near Sauk Centre to proceed. Like other so-called C-BED projects (for Community-Based Energy Development), it has more local ownership stake than the Geronimo projects.

So the wind will be blowing quite a while in central Minnesota. The more opportunities there are for residents to sit across a table from each other, the better, it seems to me.

By the way, I could track the Stearns County commissioners conversation this morning thanks to their webcast from St. Cloud. You can find a thorough treatment of the topic, including maps, in the commissioners’ agenda at their website.

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