March 16, 2012

With legislative session ended, wind turbine placement rules take effect

CLAY BARBOUR | Wisconsin State Journal, 15 March 2012

New statewide wind siting rules – stuck in the Public Service Commission for a year – are now law, after the Legislature gaveled out of session Thursday without passing a replacement.

Under the new guidelines, wind turbines must have a setback from the nearest property line of 1.1 times the height of the turbine, or roughly 450 feet for an average windmill. Turbines also must be at least 1,250 feet away from the nearest residence.

The new law was originally supposed to go into effect last March, but was suspended when critics attempted to replace the measure with a more restrictive set of rules. Though that effort failed, critics were able to send the new rules to the PSC, where officials tried unsuccessfully to broker a compromise between supporters and critics.

The protracted process has kept opponents and supporters at odds and left the wind industry in limbo. On Thursday, wind industry supporters expressed relief for what they see as regulatory certainty.

“This is great for wind in Wisconsin,” said Dan Rustowicz, of Minnesota’s Redwind Consulting, a company building a large wind farm in Buffalo County. “It good news for the state, and for the industry. We needed stability. I think you will now see more projects going forward.”

But wind critics were not so happy. “Am I disappointed? You bet I am,” said Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, chairwoman of the Legislature’s rules committee, the group that voted to send the rules to the PSC last March.

Vukmir said there are still major questions about the new rules and she would imagine the Legislature will make another run at changing the law next session. Wind supporters, however, say they are not worried.

“I don’t think they will find a lot of desire to keep working on this,” said Michael Vickerman, program director of RENEW Wisconsin, an advocacy group focused on renewable energy. “I think today’s action was the big hurdle.”

The state started discussing statewide wind siting rules five years ago, prompted by industry officials who complained of regulatory problems with the state’s existing patchwork of rules that changed with every municipality.

The location of turbines was a controversial issue from the start. Critics of the industry contend the energy generators hurt property values and can lead to health problems.

Gov. Scott Walker last year pushed for legislation that would have pushed the turbine setback from the property line – not just a house – to 1,800 feet (about six football fields), a distance industry experts said was unheard of in other states. The governor refused comment Thursday.

Walker’s legislation failed, but it did provide the impetus for shelving the new law for a year. Still, critics were never able to replace the rules. The latest attempt occurred last week when Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, tried to fight through a bill that would have repealed the new rules. That measure, authored by the Legislature’s rules committee, failed to pass the Senate.

PSC Spokeswoman Kristen Ruesch said the agency doesn’t have to do anything for the new rules to go into effect. She said PSC cannot rewrite the rules. And any changes PSC officials wanted to enact would have to go through the Legislature.

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