The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission moved back the compliance period for the nearly $320 million Prevailing Wind Park project to July 1, but continued to require the company operating the wind farm to comply with sound requirements within 60 days.
During a teleconference meeting Wednesday, the PUC denied the request of Prevailing Wind Park, which is operated by SPower to extend the compliance period from 60 to 120 days, but agreed to move back the start date to July 1. The motion approved stipulated that the decision did not protect SPower legally in the case that “any non-compliance that may be found to exist.” The motion to delay the start of the compliance period passed the three-person commission by a 2-1 vote, with Commissioners Kristie Fiegen and Chris Nelson voting in favor, and Gary Hanson voting against.
The request came as Prevailing Wind Park’s 57 wind turbines have recently been turned over to operations staff on April 22. Prevailing Wind’s attorney, Lisa Agrimonti, of Minneapolis, said aircraft detection lighting systems still need to be installed and tested, but the project will be fully operational within about two weeks.
The issue regarding compliance involves acousticians who live out of state for both SPower and the PUC and are under stay-at-home in their respective states. Sound testing is required to be held at residences of both participating and non-participating property owners, with the long-term average decibel level at non-participants set at 40 DBA.
“I think everyone would feel better about a firm start date, so that we don’t keep getting pushed out,” Nelson said. “We can have a very firm time period. If things turn south with COVID-19 and things get clamped down, we may have to revisit this.”
Hanson was the most critical of the plan to delay the compliance period, especially as it affected non-participating property owners. Hanson also took issue with Agrimonti’s argument that the wind farm has not shown non-compliance, or that stipulating that turbines closest to the non-participating property owners be turned off would cause a financial hardship, as Agrimonti argued.
“Obviously, if they have not tested those turbines, then they can’t show they are in compliance," Hanson said. "I would say it’s a superfluous argument, but it’s an interesting one. … Non-participants should not be the ones that carry the burden because someone from out of South Dakota can’t carry out the compliance.”
Hanson proposed and was the only supporter of an amendment to the motion to turn off the turbines within 1 mile of the non-participating homes until they can be safely tested by a certified acoustician. An exact number of how many turbines that would have affected was not specified, but Hanson described it as a “few.” Both Fiegen and Nelson opposed that amendment, with Fiegen saying she was “uncomfortable” with it.
“What it only does is it requires Prevailing Winds to refrain from operating a few turbines. That’s all it does,” Hanson said of the failed amendment. “Protect the citizens who are closest to have not chosen to participate and who have essentially been forced to participate.”
The intervenors involved in the permit’s approval process were also able to weigh in. Sherman Fuerniss, of Delmont, said that while he was not against Prevailing Wind’s request, some turbines have been turning since as long ago as mid-January. Fuerniss said he was told the sounds of the turbines compared to the noise created by grain dryer fans, but he had his fans running recently and could “plainly hear” the sound of the turbines over that.
“In my personal experience, there’s quite a lot of sound energy being produced,” Fuerniss said. “If this sound measuring needs to be delayed, the commission, in deference to their judgement and the professional prowess, operations could be delayed, as well.”
Karen Jenkins, of Tripp, said we don’t know how long it will be before COVID-19 allows the testing and that the health concerns of everyone are important. Both Fuerniss and Jenkins own land within the project’s area.
“But we know what we’re living with now,” Jenkins said. “And that is not a question.”
Agrimonti said the idea that the wind farm should not operate until the testing can be done was “wholly unreasonable,” in part because the work has been deemed as essential and a critical infrastructure project by the government, and because the project has commercial obligations to provide electricity.
“COVID-19 isn’t something that Prevailing Wind Park is responsible for,” Agrimonti said. “It should continue to operate. We would oppose any curtailment of the project at this time.”
Agrimonti also said that the project has the lowest wind turbine noise maximum requirements of any in South Dakota, and also specifically added criteria for sound standards regarding intervenors with the project. Hanson said those standards were agreed to in 2018 when the project was approved.
“We arrived at these sound levels and we stipulated them,” Hanson said. “Whether we arrived at unique sound orders to others, they are in these orders.”
The nearest turbines to non-participating properties, according to PUC staff testimony, was estimated at about 3,000 feet away.