The future of a proposed wind farm project in St. Croix County remains in doubt, even as progress is being made on an application before the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.
The $250 million Highland Wind Project was first proposed about four years ago, when Emerging Energies of Wisconsin LLC approached the Town of Forest in northeast St. Croix County about its idea to install about 40 wind turbines on various properties. Studies of wind in the area proved that the region is well suited for the generation of wind energy. Average wind speeds in the town are about 16 to 17 mph, which is sufficient to turn a large turbine and thus generate electricity.
Since completion of the study, the company worked quickly to gain the necessary agreements, easements and approvals.
The project came to a screeching halt, however, when some township residents objected to having the large turbines scattered throughout the municipality. Some claimed the turbines posed a health risk, while others didn’t want the rural atmosphere of Forest to be compromised.
Opponents of the wind turbine idea banded together to force a recall of the Forest Town Board, which had approved driveway permits and signed a development agreement with Emerging Energies to move the project closer to completion.
In the end, the entire board was kicked out of office. The new board moved to rescind the previous wind farm agreements, claiming that previous meetings related to the Highland Wind Project were improperly noticed and failed to meet state laws guidelines for open meetings. They also claimed that previous board members voted on the agreements, despite having an alleged financial interest in the project or being related to someone with a financial interest in the wind farm concept.
After the previous approvals were voided, Emerging Energies filed a $25 million claim against the town for backing out of agreements and permits.
The town rejected the claim, but now the company is considering a possible lawsuit to recoup some of its costs associated with the project.
Not only that, officials with the Highland Wind Project have now applied to the Public Service Commission for a slightly larger wind farm. Because of its size, the project (41 turbines generating 102.5 megawatts of electricity) requires state approval and bypasses township oversight.
Last week, Emerging Energies received correspondence from the PSC that its application needs further details before the commission will take it under consideration. The PSC asked for clarification or additional information on 60 different items.
Jay Mundinger, Highland Wind Power spokesperson, said the company is working to answer the questions and file the completed 1,800-page application within the next month.
“We are on track and I believe we’ll have a resubmittal,” he said.
Once the application is complete, the PSC will take the next six months to review the request. The PSC could ask for an extension of its timeline if the review is not completed in time, Mundinger noted.
Even with the obstacles facing Emerging Energies, Mundinger said he is optimistic that the wind farm will eventually become a reality. He said he’s also hopeful that the company’s original timeline of installing the turbines in 2013 will hold true.
“That’s still a reasonable timeline to complete the project in,” he said.
Under the current application, the 41 turbines would be placed on private property throughout the town. A power substation would be located on land in the Town of Cylon, next to Xcel Energy transmission lines that would feed the generated power into the nation’s grid.
As compensation, landowners where the individual turbines are located would receive annual payments, as would the municipalities of Forest and Cylon and St. Croix County. Payments to Forest and St. Croix County would likely total about $400,000 a year.
“This is an opportunity to generate more ‘green’ energy as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in land-use payments for landowners and communities,” Mundinger said.
According to Mundinger, the project would employ more than 100 construction workers during the installation phase. Six to eight permanent wind farm employees would take care of the farm’s daily operations, he estimated.
Even though Emerging Energies has attempted to bypass the Forest Town Board in the approval process, the PSC is asking what, if any, township rules related to wind power generation would be followed by the company.
Jamie Junker, current Forest town chairman, said if Emerging Energies would follow the town’s recently adopted rule, there would be no reason for local residents to object to the plans. He did admit, however, that following the township rules would require a significant change in the Highland Wind Project’s plans.
Junker said he wouldn’t comment at length about the project, but referred to the town board’s continuing efforts to protect the community from development that would change the face of Forest forever.
“It’s a big issue,” he said. “Clearly most of the residents of the town aren’t happy with the project.”
Junker said the wind licensing ordinance that the board adopted would provide the protection and safeguards that most people want, like regulations on turbine setbacks, noise levels and “shadow flicker.”
Mundinger admitted that his company may not have done the best job informing the public about its plans and updating residents on the project’s progress, but that’s changing.
“One of our commitments moving forward is to increase our efforts to explain the incredible benefits this project represents to Wisconsin, St. Croix County and the towns of Forest and Cylon,” he said.
The PSC retains siting jurisdiction over the HWF project. Although siting regulations approved by the PSC earlier this year have been suspended by the Legislature, the PSC will at least need to consider if the application is consistent with the suspended rules.
The PSC welcomes public comment on the project once it determines the application complete. The application has been posted to the PSC’s website: psc.wi.gov. The HWF docket number: 2535-CE-100.
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