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Bitter Root project targets the high ground in YMC

Canby area wind turbine proposal prompts public reactions

Independent file photo

CANBY — The 152-megawatt Bitter Root Wind Farm proposal in Fortier Township, Yellow Medicine County. is drawing interest from public officials, local economic development supporters, nationwide labor advocates, and residents living near the planned construction zone.

Plans call for the installation of 44 large-sized wind turbines on or near some of the highest points in Yellow Medicine County. Elevations in the county decline from Fortier Township eastward to low points in the Minnesota River Valley near Granite Falls by about 1,000 feet.

The Bitter Root proposal is being evaluated more than 25 years after turbines were first installed at Lake Benton, Lincoln County, near some of the highest points on the Buffalo Ridge. The first 73 turbines were followed in the 1990s by new Buffalo Ridge phases going northward toward Hendricks and south to the Ruthton and Lake Wilson areas.

The Buffalo Ridge wind construction got its start with help from a state renewable energy mandate given to Northern States Power Co. in return for allowing dry cask nuclear waste storage outside NSP’s Prairie Island nuclear power plant near Red Wing.

At the height of working out the details for the state wind energy mandate, former Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture and state legislator Jim Nichols of Lake Benton led a bus trip to the Minnesota State Capitol that allowed local residents to voice their support for wind construction. Those who took part included a group of students from the former Lake Benton High School.

The Bitter Root proposal has drawn similar support in the past two years from landowners who have land chosen as potential turbine sites, as well as public officials who represent them.

The developer, Renewable Energy Systems headquartered in the United Kingdom, plans to compensate landowners with leases of up to $15,000 a year for turbine construction. The project will add an estimated $700,000 annually to Yellow Medicine County’s budget.

Opposition to the project from neighbors in Deuel County, S.D., picked up steam in 2018. News sources such as Minnesota Public Radio, The Brookings Register of Brookings, S.D., the Watertown Public Opinion of Watertown, S.D., and the KSFY television station in Sioux Falls S.D., reported concerns over the height of the 44 turbines and potential devaluation of Lake Cochrane area lakeshore property.

Lake Cochrane is located about 1.5 miles from some of the planned turbine sites. Objections to the Bitter Root wind turbine plans are the second major natural resources border issue in the Lake Cochrane area, after mid 1990s objections by some Lake Cochrane lakeshore residents to the Burr Well Field constructed in the mid 1990s by Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water based in Lake Benton.

The project provided rural water service to Porter, Taunton, Minneota, Ghent, Green Valley, and nearby rural users. It also helped to guarantee an adequate daily water supply for the Minnesota Corn Processors plant in Marshall, which was expanding to produce corn syrup and other co-products related to sweetener refining. Concerns near Lake Cochrane included potential for permanent draw downs in lake depth and damage to rare plants located in a nearby calcareous fen, which, according to the Department of Natural Resources, is a “small peat wetland that is wholly dependent on a constant supply of water.”

The Minnesota DNR responded with restrictions on daily well site pumping to test the lake area’s recharge capacity.

Similarly, Bitter Root Project Developer Michelle Matthews of RES told news sources that steps have been taken to minimize the visual impacts near the lake, including a decision not to construct some of the turbines that would have been closest to Lake Cochrane.

At the same time, RES is addressing the question of local versus non-local construction phase labor. An administrative law ruling issued Dec. 6, 2018, directed the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to consider the percentage of local labor used in each new wind project as a factor in certificates of need and site permits. Higher percentages of local labor, especially totals at or above 70 percent of the construction workforce, would be favorable to project approval.

Kevin Pranis, the marketing manager for the Minnesota and North Dakota chapter of Laborers International Union of North America, said the Dec. 6 ruling is one of two major new precedents that should ensure continued local economic benefits from wind turbine construction.

Another ruling, resulting from a project application for the Nobles II wind energy facility near Wilmont in Nobles County north of Worthington, puts forth reporting guidelines through which wind developers must disclose amounts of local labor used in a project.

“They’ll go together as far as knowing how much of a connection developers have to the local job market,” Pranis said. “We have a requirement for disclosing employment data and a guideline for considering it in the permitting process.”

He said LIUNA recognizes that some jobs requiring specialized knowledge of wind turbine design, power distribution and marketing prospects might need to involve bringing in employees or contractors from California and other major wind production locations.

With standard concrete and electrical work, however, history has shown that laborers based in counties hosting a wind project or within a manageable daily commuting distance can easily transfer other kinds of construction experience to wind installations.

“There’s a good history of using local labor in past Buffalo Ridge area projects,” Pranis said. “It’s important for that to continue. It adds up to keeping millions of dollars to be used in local economic activity”

He cited data from the North Star Policy Institute, which estimates that 70 percent local labor for a 150-megawatt wind construction effort should result in about $9.8 million in local revenue. The total drops to an estimated $4.1 million if the local market only provides 10 percent of the labor force.

“Steps taken with labor guidelines could shape the future of who benefits from new wind projects and who doesn’t,” Pranis said. “We’re optimistic that by setting standards we’ll have good situations for local job markets, local business and for the developers.”

Alicia Rivera, an RES regional representative based in the Boulder, Colo. area near Denver, said RES is committed to working as much as possible with labor resources that can be found locally.

The Minnesota West Community and Technical College Canby campus offers a wind energy technology program. It could open the door for employment in construction jobs that require at least some detailed wind production knowledge, which would add to the advantages of having local general construction labor.

Rivera said RES hopes to break ground on the Bitter Root project site in 2019. The turbines could be generating power for a Deuel County transmission station as early as 2020.

“It’s a great opportunity for renewable energy and for the local economy,” Rivera said. “We’ll be searching for well-qualified workers in every way we can. That definitely will include local job postings and appearances at local job fairs.”

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