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Wind siting rules still stuck in limbo

Hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in potential economic development are stuck in limbo as officials continue to argue over new wind siting rules.

The new rules, more than a year in the making, were suspended earlier this year just before they were to go into effect. A legislative committee sent them back to the Public Service Commission, which was tasked with finding a compromise between both sides.

Now, some seven months later, PSC officials say they are no closer to a deal than when they started. Meanwhile, wind farm developers such as Midwest Wind Energy and Redwind Consulting are sitting on their hands, and their money.

“Right now, we just don’t have a path forward in Wisconsin,” said Tim Polz, vice president of Midwest Wind Energy, a company that suspended work earlier this year on a large wind farm in Calumet County. “The uncertainty is just too much now.”

Polz said Chicago-based Midwest already spent three years and about $1 million on the Calumet County project. In full, the company expected to spend upward of $200 million on the project, employ 150 to 200 construction workers for up to 18 months and five to eight people full time after that.

The project is one of five major utility wind farms suspended or canceled as a result of the ongoing stalemate, costing the state a relatively quick infusion of about $1.6 billion in economic development and almost 1,000 temporary, full-time jobs.

“In this economy, where jobs are at a premium and people are struggling, this kind of inaction is inexcusable,” said Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.

Set back by setbacks

The sticking point, according to PSC spokeswoman Kristin Ruesch, is what it has always been: setbacks, noise levels and the effects turbines have on neighboring property owners.

The PSC spent more than a year working out the original rules, which bore the fingerprints of Democrats and Republicans, the wind industry and its critics.

Those rules were scheduled to go into effect in March. But after taking office in January, Republican Gov. Scott Walker introduced a bill to dramatically increase setbacks.

The original rules required wind turbines have a setback from the nearest property line of 1.1 times the height of the turbine, or roughly 450 feet. The rules also required turbines be no closer than 1,250 feet from the nearest residence. Walker’s provision pushed the setback from the property line – not just a house – to 1,800 feet, about six football fields.

That proposal appealed to wind industry critics and the real estate industry, a heavy contributor to Walker’s campaign. Realtors donated more than $400,000 to Walker by October 2010, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, an election watchdog group.

But officials in the wind industry said the governor’s proposal would ruin their business in Wisconsin. Barca said the original rules were the result of a bipartisan agreement and he thinks the governor just doesn’t like the industry.

“It has been a deliberate decision by Gov. Walker,” he said. “They are going to kill wind energy in this state.”

Time pressure

In the end, the legislative committee that reviews agency rules chose not to act on the governor’s bill and instead voted to send the original rules back to the PSC to see if an agreement could be ironed out.

If no changes are made by March, the original rules go into effect. However, two bills sit in Legislative committees designed to kill the original rules and force the state to start from scratch.

“But I don’t think they want to do that,” said Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a Madison nonprofit that promotes clean energy. “They would be immediately vulnerable on the ‘jobs’ issue.”

Walker said he is aware of the stress caused by the delay but feels it is important any rules be fair to both sides, respecting property rights and the future of the wind industry.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, plans to introduce a bill Monday to call for a moratorium on wind turbines until the PSC receives a report from the Department of Health Services on possible health effects of wind farms.

“It is more important to fully vet, understand and communicate to the public the potential changes than the specific timing of when they are adopted and enacted.” Walker said. “It is important to note that whatever proposed changes are made, there are effects on a number of different areas of the economy.”