Western Wisconsin may never be a wind energy mecca like southwest Minnesota, northwest Iowa or the Dakotas.
But that doesn’t mean windmills won’t someday dot our skyline.
Wind developers – some local, some not – are exploring several projects in the region. So far, there are no done deals, but some developers hope to be building as soon as 2008.
In addition to replacing carbon-generated electricity with cleaner, renewable energy, there’s money to be made from wind energy for utilities, governments and local land owners.
But not everyone is embracing the idea of 300-foot wind towers – especially if it’s in their backyards. Opponents have raised concerns about the health, safety, wildlife impact and aesthetics. And they’re putting pressure on local governments to impose strict controls on wind development.
The battle has been strongest in Monroe County, where Chicago-based Invenergy LLC is proposing several dozen towers in a 50- to 75-megawatt wind farm, known as Summit Ridge Wind Energy. In April, voters in the town of Ridgeville unseated two of the three town board members, including the town chairman.
“It’s been highly contested in some of the towns,” said Monroe County Zoning Administrator Alison Phillips. “That’s really kind of too bad, because neighbors are not talking to neighbors, and no matter what happens, probably never will again.”
Wind farms generate electricity by using the wind to turn giant blades that rotate turbines to make power. The blades have diameters ranging from 230 feet to 295 feet and are mounted on towers 197 feet to 295 feet tall.
Growing from almost nothing in 1980, wind-powered turbines generated 11,605 megawatts of electricity in the U.S. in 2006, though that was still less than 1 percent of the national power supply.
Wind farms now operate in 36 states. A National Research Council panel report says estimates are that wind farms could generate 2 percent to 7 percent of the nation’s electricity within 15 years.
“There is a great diversity of opinion on how much there is going to be a ramping up of wind energy,” said report co-author Mary English of the University of Tennessee.
By reducing the need to generate electricity by burning fossil fuels, the turbines have been welcomed as a boon to the environment. Others worry about the danger to birds and bats, impacts on wildlife habitat and what some see as a blight on the scenery.
David Eggen, chairman of the town of Christiana in Vernon County, said opposition at the local level sometimes can be driven by something wind developers call “tower envy.”
“One landowner gets a wind tower with a $4,000- to $5,000-a-year rental agreement, and the other neighbor, they just get to look at it,” Eggen said.
But Jim Naleid of La Crosse, whose AgWind Energy Partners is pursuing wind development in Buffalo and Trempealeau counties, said neighbors can share in the wealth.
“Developers are creating good neighbor funds,” Naleid said. “Give every neighbor within a half-mile $500 a year – a good neighbor reward.”
For governments, the reward can be much bigger.
Once a wind developer exceeds production of 50 megawatts of power, local governments start collecting annual taxes of $4,000 per megawatt, he said. On a 100-megawatt project, that’s $400,000 a year for the counties and towns.
But lots of homework must be done, developers said, before everyone starts counting their money.
Standing outside, the wind in your face may feel like enough to power a wind turbine. But developers typically need 12 to 18 months’ worth of wind data from a special meteorological tower.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there’s only a 1 mph difference in the average annual wind speed between more desirable Class 4 wind areas, such as southwest Minnesota, which has 13 mph winds, and Class 3 areas, which include parts of western Wisconsin, where the wind blows 12 mph.
Developers feel resistance from local regulations
When it comes to wind energy, the state of Wisconsin and its local governments aren’t always on the same page.
Wisconsin wants to improve the state’s energy independence by encouraging wind farm development.
But some local officials and residents are skeptical about 300-foot towers near their homes and say they’d rather see windmills in somebody else’s backyard.
Projects larger than 100 megawatts must be approved by the state’s Public Service Commission. Smaller projects, including all those proposed so far for western Wisconsin, only need local approval.
According to state law, wind and solar energy are preferred resources, so “access to them should not be denied or restricted unnecessarily,” said Michael Vickerman, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy strategies. “Municipalities can only regulate and restrict projects on the basis of public health and safety.”
“The court of appeals is clear on this, that unless the restriction is intended to protect public health and safety, it is out of bounds,” Vickerman said.
The state has prepared a model wind ordinance for counties and municipalities to adopt. Some, such as Buffalo County, have adopted it with minor variations. Others, such as Trempealeau County, are exploring more restrictive rules.
At a recent public hearing, Supervisor George Brandt, chairman of the Trempealeau County Zoning and Planning Committee, said, “The state makes it very difficult for local units of government to say no to renewable energy sources and development, and it limits what we can ask from the utilities that want to develop these things.”
“We’re not unique. What’s happening around the world is on the doorstep of Trempealeau County,” Brandt said.
But Ettrick resident Kaye Henderson told Brandt the county is going too far.
“If this zoning administration and this zoning board were in effect when rural electrification came in in the 1920s and ’30s, I doubt we’d have electricity today,” Henderson said.
Vickerman said the biggest issues in regulating wind towers are setbacks from property lines and neighboring households. Developers generally want a distance only slightly more than the height of the highest point of the windmill. Some local governments want to restrict them to coming no closer than a quarter-mile to the nearest neighbor.
“Opponents to wind energy are becoming more and more organized, despite state law virtually guaranteeing the protection of projects, aside from threats to public health or safety,” said Jim Naleid of AgWind Energy Partners, which is proposing wind projects in Buffalo and Trempealeau counties.
“In Wisconsin, developers find themselves having to spend a great amount of time and energy defending state law,” Naleid said. “It’s not the developers asking the law to bend, it’s the developers asking for the law to protect and allow viable projects to take place.”
Even if a county adopts an ordinance that follows the spirit of state law, wind developers still face challenges at the local level, where town officials can veto a project.
David Eggen, chairman of the town of Christiana in Vernon County, said they’ve held four public hearings so far on a proposal to put two wind towers in the town just outside Westby, Wis.
He said the developers asked the town to adopt an ordinance they’d written. Instead, Christiana is working on its own ordinance, a more restrictive measure that is based on one adopted by Dodge County. The town and the developer, EcoEnergy, will meet in the coming month to find common ground, Eggen said.
“It’s such a change for a little town government like ours,” Eggen said. “We’re more used to dealing with issues of driveways and fence-line disputes and dogs. At the same time, we don’t want to get painted as we’re against wind or alternative energy. It’s hard to argue against it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
By Reid Magney
6 May 2007
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