Commercial scale wind farms provide important renewable energy sources for our state and have a positive impact on Minnesota’s economy. Wind energy conversion systems do not pose the same kind of environmental challenges that other sources do, prompting less concern about air and water pollution and the release of greenhouse gases. However, the turbines, access roads, transmission lines, and substations do have the potential to impact natural, recreational, and cultural resources. This guide outlines the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) role in the wind project review process and explains issues to be considered during project development. The DNR must balance its threefold mission of facilitating the state’s economic development, providing Minnesotans with high-quality outdoor recreation, and protecting and enhancing valued habitat for future generations.
The DNR has jurisdiction over wildlife in the state of Minnesota according to Minnesota Statutes, section 84.027, subdivision 2 and administers the Minnesota Outdoor Recreation System (Minnesota Statutes, chapter 86A). The Minnesota Outdoor Recreation System managed by the DNR includes: Wildlife Management Areas, Scientific and Natural Areas, State Parks, State Forests, State Recreation Areas, and other DNR managed lands. The DNR reviews and comments on proposed wind farms to meet statutory obligations that have been developed to ensure natural, recreational, and cultural resources are protected for the enjoyment of all Minnesota residents and our visitors.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Guidance for Commercial Wind Energy Projects applies to Large Wind Energy Conversion Systems (LWECS) (projects > 5 megawatts) or any turbine that has a height greater than or equal to 200 feet to the top of blade. The document includes discussion of both DNR regulated (by Minnesota Statute or DNR issued permits) resources and resources managed, but not regulated by, the DNR. Pertinent statutes and permits are included within the text to clarify resources that are regulated by the DNR. The DNR participates in several review activities associated with LWECS. The DNR provides prospective project developers with information and guidance during early coordination that can help them site and develop a potential project.
The DNR also manages lands that it owns, and has regulatory responsibilities over species designated as threatened or endangered, public waters, and utility crossings. DNR recommendations, not specifically tied to Minnesota Statute or DNR issued permits, are provided to the Energy Environmental Review and Analysis (EERA) unit of the Department of Commerce and to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) during the environmental review and site permitting phase. The EERA provides staffing for wind energy permitting and conducts permitting and environmental review activities on behalf of the PUC. At their discretion, the EERA/PUC may include the recommendations as permit conditions. The PUC issues the site permit for LWECS, except for those delegated to a county. The DNR also encourages implementation of DNR recommendations by other applicable regulators, such as counties.
Wind projects pose a unique set of potential impacts to natural resources due to their height, spinning blades, and widespread turbine layouts over large project areas. Turbines, transmission lines, access roads, and substations have been shown to reduce available habitat, kill birds and bats, cause some species to avoid habitat near turbines, and disrupt animal behavior. Recreational activities may be degraded due to the change in viewshed, noise, increased vehicle traffic, and safety concerns for trail users.
The mission of the DNR is to work with citizens to conserve and manage the state’s natural resources, to provide outdoor recreation opportunities, and to provide for commercial uses of natural resources in a way that creates a sustainable quality of life. The DNR goal relative to wind energy development is to support responsible development of the state’s wind resource while ensuring that Minnesota’s natural, scenic and cultural resources are protected. The DNR provides technical assistance during the early planning stages of 4 project development and during the EERA and PUC energy facility environmental review and site permitting process. Detailed information about the siting and permitting process for wind projects can be accessed from the Wind Turbines tab on the Department of Commerce website. The DNR also provides technical assistance to other applicable regulators and reviewers, such as county, city, or federal environmental reviewers.
DNR technical assistance helps to ensure natural resource impacts are considered during the planning, environmental review and permitting, construction, and post-construction phases of the project. The DNR will provide recommendations and consultations during the pre-application period to proactively and collaboratively identify potential issues prior to company submittal of a site application to the PUC. DNR recommendations are designed to identify high value natural resources, help proposers avoid, minimize, and propose mitigation for impacts to those resources, and to recommend wildlife surveys to quantify potential impacts of specific projects. The DNR will work with the project developer and other appropriate agencies to address natural resource issues prior to submission of the site application to the PUC or a county. Agency recommendations (e.g., resolution of rare feature concerns, avoidance areas, and pre- or post-construction wildlife studies) can then be considered during the PUC site application process.