The answer’s not blowing in the wind anymore for 70 or so landowners waiting to cash in on the proposed Paynesville wind energy project on the table since 2008.
Dairy farmer Ken Schefers used to be one of the planned 60 turbine wind farm’s most reliable supporters, but the return on the lease he signed with Geronimo Energy five years ago no longer seems like a sure bet.
“This isn’t as good a deal, as it once looked for us. We’d still really like to contribute to green energy, if things could work, but this particular project, just doesn’t look very good for us,” Schefers said. “And that’s kind of the feeling of the bulk of the landowners for various reasons.”
The changing economics of wind power recently led Geronimo Energy to inform state regulators the proposed 95 megawatt central Minnesota project was unlikely to become a reality any time soon. That’s quite a reversal of fortune for a project estimated to be a $155 million investment at one point.
“We have been unsuccessful based on some of the cost and interconnection attributes of the project,” states a letter from Paynesville Wind, LLC vice president Betsy Engelking to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
The Commission forced the Edina-based renewable energy company’s hand by threatening to revoke the projects’ permits for failing to contract with a utility to buy its power and start construction by a February 2015 deadline.
“Paynesville has continued its development and marketing of this project, but understands that it will likely need to obtain a new Site Permit and Certificate of Need in order to proceed with the project. We will make the necessary filing with the Commission if and when we decide to move forward with the project,” according to Engelking.
The PUC has revoked approval of four wind energy projects for similar reasons since 2013. In addition, four currently proposed wind energy projects, including Paynesville, have been notified their permits could be revoked due to lack of progress. For the first time in years, the PUC has no pending wind projects under consideration.
“In the past several previous years, the Commission would typically have 100+ megawatts in permitting pending at any given time,” PUC executive secretary Dan Wolf said in an email.
The slowdown in wind energy development follows what one industry analyst calls a “wind bubble” generated by federal stimulus funding and the production tax credit.
“Since 2009, a significant amount of new wind was built in the United States, including the upper Midwest, which led to most Minnesota utilities being able to meet and exceed the state’s aggressive mandates for renewable energy. In 2015, we have a buyer’s market where utilities can hold out for the lowest-priced wind energy,” said Lisa Linowes, who monitors wind energy development for the Industrial Wind Action Group.
Ken Schefers originally anticipated earning tens of thousands of dollar in annual income from the three to five turbines expected to be built on the 500-acre family farm he operated with his brother. But due to a glut of power on the grid, his projected payout of about $10,000 per year per turbine has plummeted.
NONE ON THE HORIZON: For the first time in years, there are no pending wind development projects before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
“If it didn’t happen, from a personal standpoint, I would actually prefer that. The reason being, the wholesale price for wind energy has about dropped in half and our payments are based off of that,” Schefers said.
It’s not just leaseholders who may be out of luck. The likely end of the project also means the apparent end of $19,000 a year in donations from the developer for charitable projects, including Paynesville’s new baseball park.
“Part of their thing was they were going to contribute to all the local places, all this money that was going to come. But I’m pretty sure it was contingent on the wind project happening,” said Chris Stanley, president of the Paynesville Baseball Club.
Geronimo Energy still maintains a local office, partly because a proposed solar power project in Paynesville looks brighter than ever. Yet after their experience with one form of renewable energy, one local official sounds skeptical.
“I’m sure this will be similar to the wind because the wind was a big deal because Xcel had to have so much wind. And then as soon as they meet their standard, wind’s not important anymore so nobody does those and I think the solar will probably be the same,” said Renee Eckerly, Paynesville city administrator.