What could be Wisconsin’s largest wind energy project is going up as scheduled, despite a proposal from Gov. Scott Walker that could make future wind farms more challenging to build in the state.
The governor’s proposal calls for a minimum setback of 1,800 feet between neighboring property and the turbine towers in a “large wind energy system” (300 kilowatts or more).
Glacier Hills is a We Energies project whose 90 turbines, on approximately 17,350 acres in the towns of Randolph and Scott, could generate up to 207 megawatts. Construction – including roads leading to the tower sites and a headquarters on Columbia County Highway H in the town of Scott – started in May, and continues this winter with the installation of underground connections that will eventually link each of the turbines to the power grid. The 400-foot towers are scheduled to be built starting this spring.
Andrew Hesselbach, We Energies wind farm project manager, said any new setback rules would not affect the construction of Glacier Hills, which received approval from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin in January 2010.
And, he noted, “Glacier Hills is already half-completed.”
Walker’s proposal, as outlined in Assembly Bill 9, calls for “the setback distance of at least 1,800 feet,” unless the owners properties adjoining the site where a tower is planned, or property owners separated from the site’s land by a road, agree in writing to a setback of less than 1,800 feet.
Hesselbach was one of 15 members of a wind siting council that the PSC last March to advise the commission on statewide setback rules for wind turbine towers – rules that were scheduled to go into effect March 1.
Those rules set 1,250 feet as a minimum setback – the same setback specified in the PSC’s “certificate of public convenience and necessity” that gave the go-ahead for construction of Glacier Hills.
We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey noted that there is no guarantee that the 1,800-foot setback called for in the bill will not be amended as the measure makes its way through the state Assembly and Senate.
“We’ll watch where this legislation goes,” he said.
Even if the setback were to be adopted as proposed, Manthey said, it doesn’t necessarily mean that utilities such as We Energies could never put up another wind farm in Wisconsin.
And for sure, he said, it won’t affect the utility’s efforts to generate more of its energy through renewable sources, to meet requirements set by state law.
For example, he said, We Energies is moving forward with a generator near Rothschild that burns “biomass” – basically, the normally-discarded branches and treetops from trees that have fallen to the forest floor.
“Whether it be biomass – and don’t forget, solar is a part of this – we’ll have to determine what we have to do to meet our portfolio requirements,” Manthey said.
Hesselbach said the state sets the percentage of the “renewable portfolio” required for each individual utility. In the case of We Energies, the requirement calls 4.27 percent of their energy to come from renewable sources, through that number will be increased to higher than 8 percent by 2015.
We Energies has one other Wisconsin wind farm, Blue Sky Green Field, featuring 88 turbines in rural Fond du Lac County, generating up to 188 megawatts.
Hesselbach said he doesn’t anticipate that the company will propose any new wind facilities any time soon – and if such facilities are proposed, the utility will have to plan on spending more time negotiating setbacks with neighboring landowners.