PUC hears 'emotionally charged' testimony for $297M, 61-turbine plan in Avon area
AVON—With both supporters and opponents getting their way, the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission heard public testimony Thursday about the 61-turbine, $297 million wind project proposed for the Avon area.
About 175 people were in attendance at the Avon High School gym regarding the Prevailing Wind Park LLC project, which is seeking a wind production permit from the PUC in late 2018 to begin commercial operation on the project in Bon Homme, Charles Mix and Hutchinson counties by late 2019. The project—which would be located between the towns of Avon, Wagner and Tripp—would be owned and operated by SPower, a private company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the power would be sold to Basin Electric Power Cooperative.
SPower Wind Vice President Peter Pawlowski presented about the project and said the owner-operator nature of his company signifies that SPower will be in the area for a long time.
"We really see SPower as part of the community and it's important that we contribute to the benefit of the community," he said.
About eight to 10 full-time jobs are expected when the construction is done, which will include about 245 workers per day over a 12-month span. Pawlowski also testified that the project would be built with new technology for the blinking red lights atop each of the towers, pending federal approval. Affixed with an aircraft detection lighting system, the lights would be off until an airplane moves into the area of the turbines.
More than 30 commenters provided testimony during the three-plus-hour meeting. Numerous area landowners and concerned citizens—many of them living within a few miles of the proposed project—voiced concerns about health impacts, sound and flicker effects and the setbacks.
Mike and Karen Jenkins, of Tripp, both testified about the local setbacks. The project—which calls for 586-foot tall turbines with rotor diameters of 449 feet—is using 1,000-foot setbacks from the nearest off-site residences and 1.1 times the height of the wind system for participating residences, which is 645 feet. Karen Jenkins said there would be nine turbines within 2 miles of her home and was already feeling the effects of the Beethoven Wind project.
"There's so many people in this area that are afraid to say something because they don't want to fight with their friends and neighbors," Mike Jenkins said. "Everybody is impacted one way or the other."
Julie Freier, of Pickstown, said her family owns 800 acres in the area of the project. She noted the tallest building in the state is in Sioux Falls and stands at about 180 feet, while the proposed wind towers are projected to be three times larger.
"This will destroy the aesthetics of our rural area," she said, before arguing that the wind project alone wouldn't be able to consistently supply electricity because wind isn't a constant energy source.
Zachary Schoenfelder, a 27-year-old homeowner from Wagner, said he's taken over the family homestead as a fifth-generation member of the family. He said the idea that people would compromise their integrity at the expense of their neighbors was disheartening.
"There is a social downfall here," Schoenfelder said. "We are a community. These people know each other. We've been linked for a very long time ... Please, increase the setbacks and stop this."
There was a lot of support for the project, as well. Dozens of individuals wore white stickers that said "I (Heart) Wind Energy" and many of the initial investors in Prevailing Wind, LLC, were on hand. That was the group that initially brought forward the Beethoven Wind project (now owned by NorthWestern Energy) and helped eventually sold this proposed project to SPower.
Ron Hornstra, of Avon, helped form the Prevailing Wind group, adding that the large number of investors locally speak to the confidence in the project.
"I'm confident that facts and truth will prevail," he said.
Representatives of the Governor's Office of Economic Development and South Dakota Farmers Union spoke favorably about the project and The Rev. Dan Brandt, of Avon, said all kinds of "witch demon" testimony can be found to be against the project but South Dakota needs to catch up with the world in energy production.
The PUC received the application on May 31 and has six months to make a ruling on the application. The next steps in the PUC process include taking input from possible intervenors. The PUC will be open to those seeking party status until July 31 and will also take public comments via mail or through the PUC's website. An evidentiary hearing would likely be held during the PUC's October meeting, officials said.
Speaking at the end of the meeting, Commissioner Gary Hanson acknowledged the topic can be emotionally charged on both sides and reiterated that the PUC will have to make decisions based on facts and evidence, and cannot be swayed by emotion. But Hanson—who was joined by Chairperson Kristie Fiegen and Commissioner Chris Nelson—said he was always willing to research new ideas, specifically mentioning the public testimony regarding noise, flicker effects and flyway effects on birds.
"This was a very valuable discussion," he said. "This is typically not a real enjoyable part of the process, but I really do enjoy it."