AVON — Prior to Wednesday night’s meeting, Chris Nelson’s hunch had already paid off.
The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) held a public input meeting in Avon to gather comments on the proposed Prevailing Winds farm north of town. The PUC meeting in the school gym drew an estimated 300 people.
"It looks like we drew a crowd," said Nelson, the PUC chairman. "This meeting was going to be held at the fire hall, but I knew that wasn’t going to be enough room."
Audience members sat shoulder to shoulder on one side of the school gym. Dozens of others filled a section of folding chairs, while still others stood along the wall, in the entrance and even outside.
The plan for the controversial wind farm calls for 100 turbines. The site will cover approximately 36,000 acres in Bon Homme and Charles Mix counties, on the Dry Choteau Creek Coteau.
The proposed 201-megawatt wind farm would generate up to 860,000 megawatt-hours annually of electric power. The energy would be used for residential, commercial and industrial consumers within South Dakota and the Southwest Power Pool.
All three PUC members — Nelson, Kristie Fiegen and Gary Hanson — attended Wednesday night’s public meeting. No final decisions were made at the meeting, as the three commissioners will decide at a later date whether to grant a permit for the facility.
Prevailing Winds LLC filed an application June 28 for a facility permit.
Prevailing Winds chairman Ronnie Hornstra provided background information on the corporation. He acknowledged the current opposition to the proposed wind farm, but he noted the Rural Electric Association (REA) also faced early battles.
Renewable energy is the wave of the future, and the proposed wind farm site provides "very abundant" natural resources, Hornstra said. He characterized much of the current opposition as neighbors with the feeling of "Not In My Back Yard" (NIMBY).
"NIMBY can only go so far," he said. "(Wind energy) still needs to be generated."
The wind farm would save natural resources and not pollute the environment, Hornstra said. "The greatest thing about the wind is that it consumes almost nothing," he said.
The proposed project does not promise to produce harm to the region, Hornstra added.
"I have yet to see any credible proof that building this wind project will be contrary to our mission or a detriment to the area," he said.
Project manager Roland Jurgens gave a presentation on the wind farm, its need for a large amount of space, and the rules and regulations it must meet. He noted Prevailing Winds would generate enough power annually to meet the current needs of 10 rural electric cooperatives the size of Bon Homme Yankton Electric.
Careful planning and adequate space must be allocated for a project the magnitude of Prevailing Winds, Jurgens said.
"We have to make sure we have it right," he said. "We can’t go back and change things when it’s all said and done."
The first dozen speakers included both proponents and opponents speaking from a wide range of perspectives.
Former state legislator Ed Van Gerpen of Avon strongly opposes the wind project, alluding to the size of the operation and its investors.
"I’m starting to feel like David and Goliath," he said.
Van Gerpen held up his Avon Pirate cap, noting the school and mascot represent the true spirit of the community. "What angers me is (Prevailing Winds investors) want to change our community to the wind capital of South Dakota," he said.
Van Gerpen disputed the figures on the amount of revenue the Avon school district would see from the wind farm.
He also warned that area residents stand to hold the bag when it comes to expenses. "As more wind power comes on line, the additional costs will be passed on to the consumers," he warned.
Another former state legislator, Frank Kloucek of Scotland, spoke strongly in favor of the wind farm. He held up a white paper of information supporting the wind farm. In the end, he called for statesman Henry Clay’s model of compromise in moving forward with the wind farm.
On the other side, Lori Cerny — who currently lives in Nebraska but has family land that would be affected by the wind farm — fought back tears as she spoke about her fears with the proposed project.
"I hate windmills," she said.
She urged landowners not to be swayed by the financial considerations of the project.
"Stop and think before you sign up for windmills," she said. "What do you have to gain, and what do you have to lose?"
Charles Cvrk, another opponent, spoke of the subsidies and other hidden costs for constructing and operating the wind farm. "At the end of the day, we see these eyesores for a long time," he said.
Terry Sestak, a South Dakota Farmers Union Board member from Tabor, said his organization strongly supports wind energy. He congratulated the Prevailing Winds investors for moving forward with the project.
"Hats off to you, gentlemen," he said.
Yankton science teacher Angie Hejl spoke in support of wind energy. She noted the many concerns about birds killed by wind turbines, but she said the figure is dwarfed by the number birds killed by other sources such as hunting and collisions with windows.
"Let’s put this in perspective," she said.
Mary Eloise Meyer, a New York resident who owns land in the Avon area, raised a number of concerns about foreign ownership of the project and the quick turnover of ownership for the neighboring Beethoven wind project.
She also raised questions whether landowners would be held financially liable for the taxes and other costs incurred by turbines on their property.
Carrie Walkes of Avon, who has taught college nursing courses, spoke of her concerns about reported negative health effects of wind turbines.
To prove one of her points, she touched Avon Clarion publisher Jack Brodeen — who volunteered for the demonstration — with a tuning fork.
"I did feel it, and it would not be comfortable," Brodeen said, drawing some audience laughter.
Avon farmer Erik Johnson, one of the Prevailing Winds investors, acknowledged the wind farm perhaps needs more explaining. However, the said the facility holds great potential for the region.
"This wind farm offers great possibilities," he said.
If the proposed wind farm clears all other hurdles, Bon Homme County would need to give final approval to the project, Jurgens said. The county has implemented a section in its wind energy zoning ordinance entitled Article 17. The action was taken in response to the Beethoven wind farm previously started in the Tripp area, he said.
The current parties in the case are Prevailing Winds and the PUC, but others can file to become a formal party, Nelson said. Those seeking such status must make written application to the PUC by 5 p.m. Aug. 29. The form is also available on the PUC website or by contacting the PUC.
"I’d like to emphasize to everyone, however, that you don’t need to become a part to the docket in order for your voice to be heard by the commission," he told the Press & Dakotan. "The reason we’re (at Avon) is to hear comments, what people have to say, and concerns about the project."
"Based on these factors, the (PUC) will decide whether the permit for the project should be granted, denied or granted with terms, conditions or modifications of the construction, operation or maintenance of the facilities as the PUC finds appropriate," Nelson said.
Follow this week’s public input hearing, the PUC may schedule a formal evidentiary hearing to consider any issues raised by any intervening party, PUC staff or the PUC members themselves.
At the formal hearing, all parties have the opportunity to appear, present evidence and cross-examine the other parties’ witnesses and to exercise all other rights.
The current law requires the PUC to issue its decision within six months of the application being filed, Nelson said.
Parties have the right to appeal the final decision to the appropriate circuit court within 30 days after the PUC files a notice of its decision, Nelson said.
The application is on file in the Bon Homme County and Charles Mix County auditors’ offices in Tyndall and Lake Andes, respectively, and in the PUC office in Pierre.
The application and all other documents in this case can be accessed at www.puc.sd.gov.