CLARK — There may be gold in them thar hills, but in Clark County there’s also a lot of angst.
South Dakota’s Public Utilities Commissioners Kristie Fiegen, Gary Hanson and Chris Nelson heard more than four hours of testimony Wednesday in the Clark Elementary School regarding the proposed Crocker Wind Farm located in northwestern Clark County. The project, first conceived in 2008, is a subsidiary of Geronimo Energy of Edina, Minn.
More than 40 people spoke for and against the project, which could include 200 wind turbines, each 500 feet tall with rotor diameters of 446 feet. Sixty landowners have signed onto the project, which would cover 30,000 acres in the rolling Crocker Hills.
The hearing was only for the commissioners to gather input. No decision was made by the PUC and won’t be until late January 2018.
Further complicating the matter is that Geronimo has filed a writ of certiorari over the Third Circuit Court’s July decision that said Clark County Commissioners were within their right to lengthen the setback for each wind tower to three-quarters of a mile to a residence. The writ asks a higher court to review the previous decision.
Many of the landowners who have agreed to lease their land to Geronimo are farmers, and they see the rent payments they’ll receive as a welcome hedge against low commodity prices that continue to cripple the farm economy.
But they also believe as landowners they have a right to make their own decisions on how they can use their land to make a living.
“We not only feed the world,” said Ryan Caulfield, who’s not in the wind farm location but still backs the project. “But we can help keep their lights on, too.”
Supporters not only praised the tax revenue from the wind turbines but also the funding that Geronimo will provide as an extra bonus.
And then there’s the promise of green energy.
“It is the consumer and society in general who are demanding green energy as the way of the future,” said Wendy Christman. “We have the land and the right as owners to use it for our betterment. The wonderful opportunity offered to us by Geronimo Energy will benefit everyone through increased tax revenue at the township, county and state level, school funding, local jobs and increased business.”
Wonderful is not how opponents described the project. Some presented reports that said the spinning blades and energy production adversely affect people living too close to the towers. They also said the wind turbines are a danger to wildlife located in the tower field.
Another claim against the project was that property values will plummet for homes located near the towers. Some speakers said Geronimo should be required to post a bond that would help offset the reduced value of property for any family that decides to sell and relocate.
And while no one said wind energy is bad, one opponent said the country needs to be careful in how much it uses.
Luke Holzwarth, a farmer near Hazel who is not affected by the project, said wind energy is heavily subsidized, meaning taxpayers are the ones who really make its relatively cheap price possible.
“If (wind energy) continues to be used in the state, our local power companies and distributors are eventually going to have to sideline some of their baseline generation because they’ll lose money,” said Holzwarth, who has an electrical engineering degree with a power emphasis.
“But whose business is going to run when the wind doesn’t blow? Nobody’s. We need to listen to our CEOs and power generation companies.”
Brian Roth, general manager and chief executive officer of Interstate Communications Cooperative of Clear Lake, said he was neither for nor against the project but was seeking assurance from Geronimo that inductive interference would not degrade telephone communications by ITC customers near the towers. He said ITC spent more than $1 million in the late ‘90s proving that the towers near Lake Benton, Minn., were causing a hum on telephones.
“Just work with us,” said Roth when asked for a short answer by one of the commissioners. “Assure us that if a problem does occur they admit to it and we get it resolved.”
Jeff Mitchell offered assurance that his farm in Stutsman County, N.D., is not affected by 15 nearby Geronimo towers that are part of the Courtney Wind Farm.
“There has been no effect on wildlife numbers, and our cattle graze in the shadow of wind turbines just like they’ve always grazed. Again, no effect.”
Mitchell explained the decision to allow towers on his property took years and was not taken lightly.
“In hindsight, we made one of the best decisions when we leased with Geronimo Energy,” he said. “They worked with us for years on the development and followed through on all their commitments. This project has been a welcome addition to the farm and the community.”
Whether good or bad, the project has certainly divided county residents. Two individuals who offered impassioned, but diametrically opposed, testimony were asked afterward if the issue has split the county permanently.
“I think we’ll get back together,” said Fred Obermeier, who said he was the first landowner to sign on with Geronimo. “We’re mostly reasonable people and I think both sides have reasonable concerns.
“But we’re still neighbors who go to the same churches, the same sporting events and see each other uptown and we still speak.”
Project opponent Jean Stevens disagreed.
“We have not attacked our neighbors,” she explained. “Our energy is going toward Geronimo, the company that started this issue.
“But there is hostility — hostility in our eating places, in our churches, anywhere you go. You don’t feel you belong there. It’s really heartbreaking. It really is.”