Walker measure requires turbines to be 1,800 feet from neighbor’s property line; PSC says 1,250 feet
The state Legislature moved with remarkable speed during its special session to enact proposals advocated by Gov. Scott Walker.
The single great exception: a bill to restrict development of wind farms.
Of 10 bills considered by the Legislature in the special session that began Jan. 4, the wind siting bill is the only one that didn’t clear the state Assembly.
Legislative leaders last week decided to stop consideration of the Walker bill, saying they would move to address wind siting in a different way. The move came one week after Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobby, announced its opposition to the wind siting bill. It’s the only plank of Walker’s special session platform that WMC opposed.
The energy proposal runs counter to Walker’s jobs agenda because it threatens to block several large wind power projects, with an investment valued at $500 million, this year and next, wind power advocates say. But Walker is concerned about the cost of wind power and says the state needs to have a better balance between wind development and property rights.
Behind-the-scenes discussions are taking place in Madison in an effort toward reaching a compromise between a siting standard established by the state Public Service Commission and the standard proposed by Walker.
The PSC standard would allow turbines to be built 1,250 feet from a nearby residence. The Walker proposal would require turbines to be at least 1,800 feet from a neighbor’s property line.
The restriction wouldn’t halt construction of the state’s largest wind farm, the Glacier Hills Wind Park. But if the standard had applied to the project, 86 of 90 turbines would not have been built, according to an analysis by state regulators.
The focus on the issue now shifts to a public hearing Wednesday before a legislative committee that reviews rules like the one forwarded by the PSC.
“There are still members of our caucus who have an interest in making a change,” said Andrew Welhouse, spokesman for state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). “The final discussions on what that change is and what route that change is going to take through the Legislature is not determined. It’s still a work in progress.”
“There are lots of discussions going on on how to come up with a compromise,” state Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) said.
He considers the 1,250-foot setback insufficient. But Cowles, who was the author of a bill that resulted in more renewable energy springing up across the state, doesn’t want to see wind development halted.
The Walker bill was met with a barrage of criticism, not only from WMC but also from wind energy developers, advocacy groups and wind energy manufacturer Tower Tech Systems in Manitowoc, which President Barack Obama visited last month. Tower Tech joined other suppliers in raising concerns about the chilling effect the bill would have on jobs and investment.
Talk of a compromise doesn’t please Jeff Anthony, a former We Energies renewable energy strategist who is now director of business development at the American Wind Energy Association.
“From our perspective, the compromise is what we’ve been working on the past two years,” Anthony said. “The compromise went through the legislative process and the regulatory process.”
Wind developers initially sought a setback of 1,000 feet from homes before the PSC adopted a 1,250-foot setback.
Cowles said there have been plenty of discussions aimed at forging a compromise, but he said the issue is not a simple one. Views on each side are strong, with wind power advocates touting benefits of clean energy and job creation, and homeowners complaining about lack of sleep and noise caused by turbines near their homes.
The Wisconsin Realtors Association said it worked with Walker’s transition team to craft a proposal that would effectively block the PSC’s standard, which was established after eight months of study. The Concerned Realtors Committee was a key backer of Walker’s gubernatorial campaign, donating more than $43,000 in 2010, campaign finance records show.
The governor’s bill was backed by the Wisconsin Builders Association and Wisconsin Towns Association as well as local community groups that have organized to block wind farms, such as the one Chicago-based Invenergy has proposed in Brown County.
“This is a sound first step in protecting the health and safety of those forced to live in close proximity to wind turbines,” said Steve Deslauriers of the Brown County Citizens for Responsible Wind Energy. A lesser setback would amount to “nothing less than government endorsed property takings, eliminating the safe use and development of land without meaningful compensation.”
The group is concerned about the cost to utility ratepayers of adding more wind power in the state at a time when there’s no need for new power generation.
Supporters counter that wind power is a good long-term financial bet. Once capital expenses are paid, wind power has no fuel cost. That’s in contrast to the volatile price of natural gas and the rising price of coal burned in Wisconsin power plants, which has nearly doubled since 2000.
Toughest place to build
Among those raising concerns about the Walker proposal is construction firm Michels Corp., owned by onetime Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tim Michels.
Wind power construction is a growing piece of the firm that also builds power lines and pipelines across the country, said Mark Hutter, vice president. But the company is concerned that four projects on which it’s bidding won’t get built because of the legislation, and that it will have to focus on wind farm work outside Wisconsin, he said.
“A good percentage of our 4,000 employees are from Wisconsin and we would like to keep them working here in our home state,” he said. “We would much rather work in our home state than being sent to Kansas, Oklahoma and California – not that those are bad places.”
Kim Zuhlke, who ran the generation fleet in Iowa and Wisconsin for Alliant Energy and is now an energy consultant, said it’s always been much tougher to build wind farms here.
“We built in Iowa, we built in Minnesota and in Wisconsin, and I can tell you Wisconsin’s the toughest place to build a wind farm out of those three,” he said. “And if this bill passes, we just made it a whole lot tougher than it already is.”
The effect of blocking state wind farms would not only deter the wind power manufacturing industry, but also push utilities to build more wind projects out of state.
Wisconsin would then face more siting battles, Zuhlke said: Where to locate and build high-voltage transmission lines.
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