Decommissioning plan one snag in new wind farm application

CLINTON — The new special use application for the Alta Farms wind energy project could go to the Regional Planning Commission (RPC) for consideration, but that is by no means definite as of yet.

Tradewind Energy recently responded to county zoning administrator Angie Sarver about deficiencies she found in the new application.  On Monday, county board vice chairman and member of the board’s land use committee Camile Redman asked Sarver if she was ready to present the new application to the RPC.  Discussion took place during the land use meeting.

“I informed them that it (application) was incomplete and gave them the reasons it was incomplete,” Sarver said.

Sarver said because of testimony given by Tradewind representatives during the application hearings, she feels reluctant to forward the application to the RPC.  Sarver said Tradewind representatives testified that she and the county board had approved the company’s decommissioning plan for the wind energy project.

“I have no authority, whatsoever, to accept that decommissioning plan,” Sarver told land use committee members.  “It’s not signed. It has not been brought to the board.”

Sarver suggested Tradewind representatives approach the county board to have the decommissioning planned approved, “before it can be a complete application.”

“Because it is not my responsibility,” Sarver said.

Redman said she felt Sarver had fulfilled her responsibility by notifying Tradewind of the application deficiencies and taking their response.

Sarver expressed uneasiness about passing the application to the RPC in light of Tradewind’s statement that she and the county had approved the decommissioning plan.

“I don’t feel comfortable accepting the application until the county board has approved or mutually agreed upon as it states in our ordinance,” Sarver said. 

Sarver referred to the list of requirements needed to be satisfied at the time the special use application was presented.

 “Our ordinance is not clear on when that stuff is supposed to be done,” said land use chairman Terry Ferguson.

Ferguson said he had hoped to present to the county board a check list including required items and when they should be completed in regard to special use permits for wind farms.

With regard to the decommissioning plan itself, Ferguson cited the wide range of costs for dismantling wind towers.

“You would be amazing at the variance in the financial obligation that’s going to be left with the decommissioning plan,” Ferguson said.

Based on a Google search conducted by the Clinton Journal, costs to decommission wind turbine towers range from about $40,000 to about $225,000 per tower, and exactly who will cover that cost is not always clear-cut.

In 2014, according to the Sauk Valley News, a Virginia-based company performed a study to estimate costs to decommission an Ohio wind farm.  The study concluded it would cost about $224,000 per tower to decommission an 87-turbine wind project at a total cost of $19.4 million.

The county involved was considering asking the wind developer for a performance bond to cover the entire cost of the decommissioning.  The county’s available assets would have covered only 15-20 percent of costs to decommission the project.

In this case, the developer was a limited liability corporation (LLC), so if the company closed, there would be no assets to cover a decommissioning plan.

In some cases, wind farm developers take on the responsibility of paying the cost of decommissioning, while local jurisdictions often have varying arrangements for covering such costs.

Worldwide, a trend among some wind energy developers has been to “re-power” rather than decommission wind farms.  

Turbines are replaced with newer technology turbines to extend the life of a project.

“Tradewind, in their last proposal, said that the net costs …for Plan A was $40,000 per wind tower, for Plan B, $33,000 per tower,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said he sought a “thorough investigation” of the process and costs involved with decommissioning a wind energy project.

He said when costs among contractors varied so widely,” there seems to be a lot of room for refiguring.”

Ferguson said the county might want to use the highest estimate in order to have enough reserve funds to cover the cost.

He suggested submitting the check list to the full county board, “and let them make the determination on whether that application is complete.”

In one aspect, Redman agreed.

“That’s what I’m saying.  Angie’s done her part, but we have an RPC, and we have a ZBA (Zoning Board of Appeals), and they have a job to do too.”

“It’s not part of the RPC’s job to decide on it,” Sarver said.  “It (ordinance) says, ‘mutually agreed upon with the county board’.”

Sarver said when the RPC examines text amendments, those board members use the county’s comprehensive plan as their guide.

“The ZBA is the group that follows the ordinance,” she said.

The discussion led to a lengthy debate about the interpretation of the word “pursuing” used in the county’s wind energy ordinance.  Ferguson felt the use of the word “pursuing” was too vague and did not make clear exactly what should be done and when.

He cited in particular Tradewind’s stating in their application they were “pursuing” the type of aircraft warning lighting system required by the county, matching language used in the county’s ordinance.

“On a previous check list, it included aircraft warning lighting system, but they (Tradewind) didn’t check that one,” Ferguson said.  “So, are they really pursuing it?”

“That’s what it was,” Sarver said.  “They had plenty of time, knowing what our ordinance was from the last time.  They’ve had more months now to try to pursue that.”

Redman repeated she felt once Tradewind replied to Sarver’s notification about the application deficiencies, Sarver’s job was completed and the application should move on to the RPC.

Sarver remained firm on her position she did not have the authority to approve the decommissioning plan, so did not feel comfortable about passing the application on.  She said she still felt the decommissioning issue should go to the county board first.

“If they feel they agree on it, then that will be fine,” she said.

She said she did respond to Tradewind again notifying them some elements of the application still were missing.

“They haven’t answered back since then.”

“If the county votes on it and approves it, that’s their decommissioning plan,” Ferguson said.

All of the land use members said they had not seen the most current Tradewind decommissioning plan.

“I’m assuming it’s the same, is it?” Ferguson asked.

“No, they have changed some wording,” responded Sarver.

Redman felt anything in the old special use application was irrelevant and should not be discussed.

In a sense, that could be correct, since board members are prohibited from considering information not given in testimony before the ZBA.  With the submission of a new special use permit application by Tradewind, testimony given based on the first application might not be relevant.

Ferguson acknowledged Redman’s point but said discussion of decommissioning costs still was relevant.

“If we, as a county, chose to accept the special use permit, if it ends up that way, are we going to have the nerve to go back and say, ‘hey, we’re throwing that out’?” Ferguson asked.

He said there seemed to be confusion about whether conditions should be set before or after the granting of a special use permit.  Ferguson said under the Special Use Permit heading of the county wind energy ordinance, requirements included the decommissioning plan to be reviewed by an engineer and approved by the county.


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