In Columbia County, the biggest wind farm in the state is nearly complete.
Ninety turbines are being erected by Wisconsin contractors including the Boldt Co., Edgerton Contractors and Michels Corp., in a $367 million project. On a typical day this year, about 175 workers have been on the job, pouring foundations, constructing towers and hoisting turbines and blades into place.
The activity comes despite a stalemate on wind turbine siting that wind power supporters say threatens to make the We Energies Glacier Hills Wind Park not only the largest but the last major wind farm to go up in the state.
But wind developers are expressing hope that a logjam can be broken, after recent conversations between the governor and several wind development firms.
Since this year, wind industry representatives say five companies have suspended or canceled work on projects in Wisconsin.
At issue is the Walker administration’s work to address pressure from opponents of wind farms, including the Wisconsin Realtors Association, who say that wind projects are interfering with private property rights of homeowners who live near turbines – and the effects of noise and shadow flicker from the turbines.
Gov. Scott Walker was backed by wind farm opponents in his 2010 election campaign and included a bill to restrict wind farm development in the jobs package he unveiled in his first weeks in office.
But concern about stalling all development and business for Wisconsin firms resulted in pushback against the Walker bill, which ended up being the only piece of legislation that was left to die out of the initial jobs special session.
Criticism of wind turbine siting persists, with state Sen. Frank Lasee, a possible candidate for U.S. Senate, recently unveiling a bill calling for a statewide moratorium on wind turbine construction until more research is done on the health effects of the devices.
“We met with Gov. Walker to discuss how we can work together to allow the economic benefits of wind energy to help boost Wisconsin’s economy,” said Mike Arndt, a Wisconsin native who now is vice president of Element Power, a company developing projects around the country. Arndt was one of the wind industry representatives who met with Walker two weeks ago.
Among Element’s projects is $300 million to $400 million wind farm in Manitowoc and Kewaunee counties.
The Walker administration is now sending signals that it’s seeking middle ground on the wind controversy.
“Gov. Walker is committed to finding a resolution to this issue,” said Cullen Werwie, the governor’s spokesman. “We are hopeful that moving forward we’ll be able to find a reasonable compromise that protects property rights while allowing appropriate wind farm development.”
Now under the leadership of former Republican state Rep. Phil Montgomery, the Public Service Commission has been taking the lead in trying to forge a compromise – holding discussions with wind developers and wind critics, said utility spokeswoman Kristin Ruesch.
“Negotiations between the parties are still going on, and the PSC is trying to help find consensus,” Ruesch said.
Details of a possible compromise aren’t known, and it’s too early to tell if the parties can come to an agreement. Realtors and landowner representatives who sat on the PSC’s wind siting task force in 2010 dissented from the final rules developed by the agency.
Meanwhile, wind development activity continues apace around the country, with some of the most active states being Wisconsin’s nearest neighbors.
When state policies stymied wind farm development in Wisconsin, the Illinois Wind Energy Association touted his state as a land of opportunity for developers to pursue projects.
“Illinois is open for business,” the group’s executive director said earlier this year, seeking to capitalize on Walker’s new state slogan. “In light of Wisconsin’s War on Wind,” the group said, “we introduce a call for wind developers to ‘Escape to Illinois.’ ”
In 2010, nearly 500 megawatts of wind capacity went online in Illinois, far more than the 20 megawatts built in Wisconsin. According to an Illinois State University study, wind development in Illinois has generated $18 million in property taxes, $8.3 million in income for landowners and created nearly 500 permanent jobs.
So far this year, no wind projects have gone online in Wisconsin, while another 390 megawatts have been installed in Illinois, with a comparable amount developed in Minnesota as well. Together, the two states have built more wind projects this year than Wisconsin has built in the 12 years since the first turbine was erected here.
There is no immediate pressure on utilities to build more wind farms after Glacier Hills goes online this year, because they are all on track to comply with the state’s renewable energy standard. That requires utilities to secure 10% of Wisconsin’s electricity from renewable sources by 2015.
But the Wisconsin renewable mandate will grow after 2015, along with rising demand for electricity. We Energies, which supports the siting rule developed by the PSC, will need more renewable energy by 2017, utility spokesman Brian Manthey said.
Whether a compromise can be reached is unclear.
In addition to backlash from wind energy companies that are seeking to invest in the state, voters in public opinion surveys have expressed support for wind power.
But with the specter of a recall election looming, Walker may seek to return to his supporters, including the Realtors – one of the governor’s biggest backers in terms of campaign donations last year.
During last year’s campaign, Walker was more strident in his opposition to wind power, documents released to the Journal Sentinel under the state’s open records law show.
“I will fight government policies that further infringe on the rights of property owners,” Walker said in a campaign letter last summer. “Wind turbines have proved to be an expensive, inefficient source of electricity and thus any further construction of turbines simply is not a policy goal or objective that should be pursued further.”
With the administration now talking compromise, one of the wind industry executives who recently met with Walker is now sounding an upbeat tone.
Construction of the two We Energies wind farms led to creation of 22 permanent jobs for Vestas, said Art Ondrejka, site manager in Wisconsin for Vestas, the world’s leading turbine supplier. Nationwide, Vestas says it’s created 2,000 jobs since 2008.
“We hire our people from nearby,” he said. “It’s by design. It gets the community more involved with them and gets local people to take some ownership in the long-term viability of the project.”
Susan Innis, Vestas senior manager of government relations, said she is hopeful a compromise can be reached, based on the recent discussions she, Arndt and others had with Walker.
“Wisconsin’s been a great state to do business, and we’d really love to do more,” she said.
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