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Kline applauds Congress' decision to end renewable energy grants in 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The bipartisan jobs bill that was passed Tuesday by the House of Representatives includes a provision that could impact construction of the controversial AWA Goodhue wind project.

As part of the legislation, which passed by a 234-193 vote, the Section 1603 renewable energy grants that were part of the 2009 federal stimulus package would be allowed to expire at the end of this month; they had been extended for another 12 months last December and some had pushed for a similar course of action this year.

Minnesota Congressman John Kline has been a vocal critic of Section 1603, especially of late. He sent a letter to his colleagues last week advocating expiration, and specifically cited the local project as his reason for supporting the jobs bill that included that provision.

"This is a wind energy project Goodhue County citizens don't want funded by taxpayer money the federal government doesn't have," Kline said via the statement. "Given the economic challenges facing our country, we cannot in good conscience use taxpayer dollars to subsidize industries that have failed to demonstrate proven results to help our long-term energy strategy."

Though National Wind, the project developer, has repeatedly declined comment since September — CEO Peter Mastic did so again Tuesday night in Zumbrota — it appears increasingly unlikely that the project will begin construction by Dec. 31, thereby missing out on more than $50 million in federal funding through Section 1603.

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The $180 million, 78-megawatt project sited northeast of Zumbrota has been in development for years, but it's faced plenty of public criticism as it's gone through a historic two-plus year permitting process with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Though it finally received its site permit this fall, that will be challenged in the courts by at least two citizen groups in 2012.

Regardless of the impending visit to the Court of Appeals, the wind company must still jump through a number of hoops before it can begin construction.

First, National Wind must submit an Avian and Bat Protection Plan that requires approval by the PUC; Christy Brusven, the company's legal counsel, said Tuesday night at the Minneola Town Board meeting in Zumbrota that the ABPP will be submitted to the PUC this week. It's expected to be put on the agenda in St. Paul within the next few weeks, though the upcoming holidays may bump that into early 2012.

The company is also seeking road agreements with three different governing bodies, as the 400-foot tall turbines will create heavy wear-and-tear and require temporary widening in some areas, such as intersections. National Wind met last week with Belle Creek Township, though talks have essentially stalled there in the heart of the resistance, and Tuesday with Minneola Township. Another meeting with Goodhue County Engineer Greg Isakson is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, though Mastic acknowledged that it may get bumped to January due to the holidays.

While last week's meeting in Belle Creek reportedly had heated moments before a sparse crowd, Tuesday evening had its share of testy exchanges at the packed Zumbrota Fire Hall — one of which ended by a citizen storming out of the room after a statement Mastic made.

"This group is not listening," Mastic said during the exchange over turbine siting near township roads.

The state requires a 250-foot setback from wind turbines to access roads, while General Electric, which builds turbines, has recommended an 800-foot setback. The AWA Goodhue project will have no setbacks less than 400 feet, but one dubbed "Turbine 41" is sited in such a way that ice throws or other catastrophic failures could impact a road that four school buses travel daily.

Mary Hartman of Rochester also questioned why maps presented to the Minneola Town Board did not show where bald eagle and red-tailed hawk nests were located; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended a one-mile setback for bald eagles and 1/4-mile setback for hawks.

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"They're pretending this isn't even an issue," Hartman said. "It's a huge issue."

The meeting ended with the Minneola Town Board asking for more information from the wind company, while saying it may make changes or additions to whatever road agreement National Wind reaches with Goodhue County.

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