A wind-siting rule that took effect in Wisconsin on Jan. 1 could open the door to wind farms in southwest Wisconsin.
The rule provides a path for obtaining a permit to build a wind farm – as long as the project developers abide by the guidelines established by the state Public Service Commission. If a township or other municipality opts to regulate a wind-energy power system, its ordinances can’t be more restrictive than the PSC’s rules.
Basically, the PSC’s rules trump any local ordinances.
In southwest Wisconsin, the new rule could pave the way for the development of the proposed White Oak wind project by Wind Capital Group that includes parts of Smelser, Hazel Green and Paris townships. The project has been on hold for more than two years.
“We believe that passage of the PSC’s rule will certainly set the conditions in place that make development of wind facilities much more possible in Wisconsin,” said Tom Green, Wind Capital senior manager of project development. “In reviewing the new rule and applying those rules to their plans for White Oak, they will have a better idea moving into the future of the viability of the project.”
Ron Brisbois, Grant County Economic Development director, said the new law will allow communities to plan and give wind developers the freedom to create wind-farm strategies.
“That was what everybody was waiting on,” Brisbois said of the White Oak project and another in northern Grant County. “This should allow them to move forward to secure financing and implement the design of the full layout of where the turbines will go.”
“It’s important,” said Joe Alt, of rural Cuba City and a participant in the White Oak project, discussing the new rule. “It’s definitely going to help get a wind farm going.”
The White Oak project has its opponents, and the Smelser Township supervisors enacted a moratorium on wind farms in 2009. Foes said siting has and always will be the main concern of numerous Smelser Township residents. Some sought an 1,800-foot minimum setback requirement to minimize what they call the “noise, safety and health risks” to their families and their houses. Others cited concerns about falling property values because of the size and location of the towers, usually as high as 400 feet.
“We’re just sitting in neutral right now,” said Smelser Supervisor Arnie Rawson, who voted for the moratorium and who hadn’t seen the new wind-siting rule as of Monday afternoon. “We are very open-minded on it, but we have to be careful to weigh in both sides.”
Gabe Loeffelholz, Smelser Township chairman and a former state legislator, said there still are residents in favor of the moratorium. He isn’t one of them.
“I don’t know what lies ahead,” Loeffelholz said, “but whether it’s ethanol, solar power, or wind turbines as an alternative source of energy, I say go for it.”
That’s what former Gov. Jim Doyle and state lawmakers did previously. In October 2009, Doyle signed a bill (2009 Wisconsin Act 40) that called for state regulators to come up with statewide rules for wind farms that specified the conditions a local government entity could impose on the installation or use of a wind-energy system. The state Wind Siting Council formulated the rule after numerous public meetings, hearings, discussions and fine-tuning.
Earlier this month, the commission adjusted the requirements on two issues of critical importance to the wind industry: setback distances and compensation to neighboring residents, called a “Good Neighbor” payment.
Initially, the rule did not specify a definite setback distance between turbines and residences neighboring the host property. Now, municipalities cannot establish a setback distance on non-participating residences that is less than 1,250 feet.
Alt said the new rule allows for the owners of non-participating residences within a half-mile of a wind turbine to receive monetary compensation from the wind system owner.
“It’s fair to everybody,” he said.
If the wind farms move forward, Brisbois said both the participating townships and Grant County will receive revenue. Participating landowners will receive a new source of farm income from the leases on the wind turbines.
“This is an opportunity that not a lot of townships in Wisconsin have,” he said. “It’s somewhat unique. You can’t just plop down a wind farm anywhere. You have to have the wind and the substations.”