For the time being, at least – pending the decision of an ongoing civil case – a proposed wind farm project in Fayette County is still on track to become reality.
The Fayette County Council, in a vote of 4-1 Tuesday evening, approved a two-year extension of Nextera Energy Resource’s tax abatement for the West Fork Wind Energy Center project, which would see more than 40 turbines and a minimum of a $120 million investment in Fayette County as part of the three-county project.
Approving the extension of the tax abatement were Councilmembers Dale Strong, Mike Wenta, Mark Nobbe and Mark Pflum, with Councilman Jim Wulff voting against the extension. Abstaining from the vote was Councilwoman Shirley Wise, who has abstained from previous votes on matters regarding the wind project due to her being a participating landowner in the project and wanting to avoid a conflict of interest.
The reasons for the extension request, Nextera’s attorney Mary Solada told council Tuesday night – in front of a packed council chambers – is due to the project still needing a purchaser for the power which the project would create, in addition to complications in Rush County which prevented Nextera from filing their zoning application until just recently.
“The reasons are many,” Solada said. “The one primary reason, though, is Rush County had, for over a year, a moratorium preventing our filing of the zoning application. That application was accepted in August of this year. We actually have a hearing in a few weeks. So that has caused a delay.
“We’d like to put some turbines in Rush County, but if it doesn’t work out, we still think we have a project,” she continued. “So that’s a reason. Zach (Melda, project manager) has been with his team working very hard to find a buyer for the power. It’s kind of interesting, is going on in the energy industry there’s more and more interest from corporations buying renewables, in addition to the standard public utilities. So there’s been a lot of effort in marketing the project.”
Solada added that Nextera continues to make investments in the project as well, and commented that last month, Fayette County Commissioners voted unanimously to extend the county’s economic development agreement with Nextera by a two-year time frame, in support of the project. The economic development agreement would see payments totaling roughly $2 million dollars over a seven-year span of the 10-year tax abatement.
Solada also said that the two-year extension to the tax abatement, which would actually push the tax abatement schedule out to 2019, might not be entirely needed as Nextera is optimistic that the project will begin construction possible in late 2017 or early 2018.
“We’re asking that we be allowed through the end of 2019 to actually complete,” she said. “We’re not proposing to change the abatement schedule. As you remember, there are very substantial economic development payments intended to make up to the taxpayers the loss of tax revenue during the abatement period. They’re not proposing to change those payment amounts or the payment schedule.”
The importance of passing the two-year extension of the tax abatement was also emphasized by Solada, who said that without it, Nextera would have to quote the price of the power to prospective buyers differently.
“And that makes us much less competitive,” she said. “So, I think we feel we’ve come this far, and we ask your indulgence.”
Councilmember Dan Pflum asked Solada the question of what impact, if any, would the current presidential election – and who is elected – would have on Nextera selling wind power, given Republican candidate Donald Trump’s stance on coal power.
“That’s a very fair question,” she replied. “Keep in mind that the energy sector is largely regulated by Congress, as opposed to the president, and what’s interesting is most wind energy developments in this country are actually in Republican congressional districts. So I think a President Trump might have trouble convincing those members of Congress who’ve seen the benefits in their districts of renewables.”
Councilman Wenta asked about solar power as well, and if Nextera had considered a solar power project for the area, rather than a wind farm project.
Melda, the project manager, said that wind is more plentiful than sun when it comes to Fayette County, hence the pursuit of a wind project.
“You’re a little bit more blessed with wind here than the sun, so for us to build a solar project, it would be a lot more difficult than to build a wind project,” he said, while Solada added that a solar project does not result in as much investment, nor taxation, for a community in comparison to a wind project.
Council opened up the meeting for public comment, of which both supporters and opponents of the wind farm project voiced their views.
One supporter of the wind farm, Steve Walker of Posey Township, said the wind project is a great opportunity to improve the community. “I was on the committee that selected Nextera as the wind energy for this county. They’re a solid company and I think we’re missing a big opportunity for this county if we turn down this project,” he told council.
“We’ve turned down many projects, we’ve lost many projects and in bringing industry and tax money to the county ... I totally support wind energy and I think, as a country, we’ve got to get away from fossil fuels. We’ve got to get away from imported fuels, and we know that the government is going to continue to force coal companies, coal fire plants out. And the only other option is nuclear, and that’s been proven to be kind of unreliable over the long term. So I encourage you to extend this abatement, encourage this company to come in here and work with us, and build this wind farm.”
One wind farm opponent, Craig Mosburg of Posey Township, had a different take, however.
“Back in 2011, I gave (you) a News-Examiner article presentation about Nextera. Was asked about it. Back then, they were going to have 80 to 120 turbines in Fayette County. It was called the Fayette County Wind Farm back then, and went to Fayette County only,” he said. “Then there was another open house for the Whitewater Wind Farm, now including Rush and Henry counties. Fayette was going to get 43 turbines, Rush County 26 and nine turbines for Henry County.
“2015, the abatement meeting for Whitewater Wind Farm. Back then, all they needed was a buyer for the power to move ahead with the project. Then came the challenge about the setback distance of an industrial wind turbine from our properties. We lost the challenge without even the chance to negotiate,” he continued. “I want you to know that South Dakota, under Nextera, has a 2,000-foot setback. Remember, no one on the APC, BZA, county council or county commissioners will be living with a turbine in their backyard. Then came 2016 and a new name, West Fork Wind Energy Center, and an open house. The open house is like starting over again. Nextera stated, in the paper, they needed another 2,500 acres. Back in the abatement days, they had enough acres to receive the abatement. So what happened?
“Did some of the leases not get renewed? Could this be why the new name, an open house and more donors?” Mosburg continued. “At the open house, I was informed by a Nextera employee that Fayette County was the poorest county in Indiana, but she did not know the poorest county in Florida. How can a person from Florida know the details of our county without being prepped?”
Mosburg went on to question the legitimacy of the studies Nextera presented at its open house last week, which allegedly debunk the many health concerns of residents about industrial wind turbines, and also if Nextera paid for those studies to be done. He also told council that, in speaking to an accountant and retired county commissioner in another Indiana county with wind turbines, that the county actually stood to make more in tax revenue by not providing an abatement to Nextera, than what they will with the abatement.
“We are required to pay property taxes,” he told council. “They should too ... Fayette County officials need to stand up and make Nextera pay their full amount in property taxes. It’s not like they can’t afford it ... they are a billion-dollar company.
“What’s so sad is giving a billion-dollar company, from out of state, a huge break, but you have no problems voting to empty the pockets of your own citizens while inflicting them with a higher tax,” he concluded.
In the end, however, council decided to pass the tax abatement extension.
The future of the project, despite the search of a purchaser of the project’s power and the delayed situation in Rush County, could still hinge on the decision of Franklin Circuit Court Judge Clay Kellerman, who as special judge is deciding whether a lawsuit brought against both the Fayette County Commissioners and Nextera by a group of county residents, will proceed in the court system.
The lawsuit alleges that the county’s decommissioning agreement with Nextera in not valid, due to not being in accordance with the county’s zoning ordinances.
Judge Kellerman, as of Wednesday, had yet to make a decision whether to let that case proceed in the courts or to dismiss the suit, as is being sought by both commissioners and Nextera.