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Public Utilities Commission approves 50,000-acre wind farm in southeastern South Dakota

PIERRE, S.D. -- The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved on Tuesday an application for a large wind farm to be located in the southeastern part of the state.

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The sun sets in the background of some of the wind turbines Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, south of Rollag. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. - The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved on Tuesday an application for a large wind farm to be located in the southeastern part of the state.

The wind energy facility proposed by Prevailing Wind Park LLC would span more than 50,000 acres in Bon Homme, Charles Mix and Hutchinson Counties, with up to 61 wind turbines generating a total nameplate capacity of no more than 219.6 megawatts.

Participating residents in the area will be able to house the turbines on their properties in exchange for payments from Prevailing Wind. The turbines must be set back from adjacent, non-participating properties in accordance to individual county law.

Commissioners didn’t pass the application as it was initially presented. They made several amendments, imposing more precise noise level restrictions, operational restrictions and establishing further reporting requirements for noise levels and environmental impact.

Still, commissioners seemed conflicted in their ultimate decision. Chairperson Kristie Fiegen said she thought setback requirements for the project - which are established by counties on an individual basis - were “outdated.” Commissioner Gary Hanson consulted with the commission’s legal counsel several times to see if the commission had legal standing to increase the turbine’s setback from nonparticipants’ property lines. Based on the evidence, they concluded they did not.

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The commission’s role is to base its rulings on the evidence presented and on current law. If they don’t, Hanson said the applicant could appeal the commission’s decision to the circuit court, which could overrule it “and we would start all over.”

Interveners voiced concern over the wind farm’s potential impacts on their health and claimed Prevailing Wind Park did not meet the burden of proof to show otherwise. In previous hearings, interveners brought forward testimonies from residents who live near other wind farms throughout the Midwest who claimed wind farms were detrimental to their health and way of life.

Prevailing Wind brought in doctors to testify, who said there was no reason to believe the proposed energy facility would impair residents’ health. While he said he valued the testimonies from residents, Hanson said the expert witness testimonies from medical professionals had firmer legal standing.

Though they had “no Harvard degrees,” Marsha Hubner of Avon told commissioners she still thought residents had the most powerful evidence because they had the experience of living near turbines and “have nothing to gain” by testifying.

“They came and testified before the commission so that mistakes that were made in Iowa and Nebraska, mistakes that cost people their homes and their quality of life, are not repeated here in South Dakota,” she said to commissioners.

At the end of the day, the question commissioners ultimately wrestled with was how to strike a balance between protecting residents who don't want to live near a wind farm and allowing residents who wish to reap the rewards of housing turbines on their property to proceed - and do so in accordance to state law.

That question was tough to answer, especially under a tight deadline, Hanson said: The commission only had six months to decide.

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