State regulators on Thursday rejected an application to build a new wind farm in St. Croix County, citing concerns about turbine noise the project would generate for nearby homes.
The state Public Service Commission voted 2-to-1 to reject Emerging Energies’ proposal to build the Highland wind farm, which was proposed to generate 102.5 megawatts of power from 41 turbines, or enough to supply about 30,000 homes.
Commissioners said that they were rejecting the proposal “without prejudice,” in essence leaving the door open for the developer to file a new application for the project, after it conducts a new noise study using more conservative assumptions about the background noise in the area.
The $250 million Highland project is the first wind farm to be ruled on by the state commission since Republican Gov. Scott Walker appointed two commissioners, a majority of the three-member panel.
Emerging Energies representative Jay Mundinger said after the vote the developer plans to continue its pursuit of a permit for the project.
Commissioner Eric Callisto, the lone remaining appointee of former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, said he would have approved the project but would have attached conditions binding the developer to protect nearby landowners from excessive turbine noise.
Noise studies by the applicant found that 20 homes would experience noise levels above the 45 decibel standard at night, but the commission could work with the developer on “micro-siting” issues after new analysis was done, he said.
The Highland project is the only large wind energy project currently in active development in the state. The state’s utilities have already built enough wind farms to comply with the Wisconsin renewable portfolio standard, which requires that 10% of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2015.
During the commission’s meeting in Madison, commissioner Ellen Nowak said the applicant didn’t prove that all the wind project would result in noise levels below 45 decibels at night, the standard set in state rules.
As a result, she said she concluded the project was not in the public interest.
In their decision, the PSC commissioners decided not to attach special requirements concerning low-frequency noise, after wind consultants studied the impacts of low frequency noise from wind turbines the same developer built near Green Bay.
Mundinger said the developer would take the noise concerns into account but was not giving up on the project.
“We believe that sound, from what we’ve heard, is a big concern, and we believe we can address that and we believe we have a pathway to get the (project permit) in short form,” he said. “We want to make sure we address the sound and be able to move this project forward.”
The company has offered to use a different, quieter turbine than it used when developing the Brown County wind farm – the tallest towers built so far in Wisconsin.
PSC commissioners said they would not approve the project if it used the loudest of the three turbines Emerging Energies had been considering.
“The turbines are better than ever before,” Mundinger said. “They’re quieter than the ones just 10 years ago.”
Peter McKeever, attorney for the Forest Voice, a group that mobilized in opposition to the wind farm, said he was pleased with the commission’s decision.
Wind farms are difficult to build in Wisconsin because the state’s dairy farming heritage and land use history resulted in smaller farms being closer together rather than large farms that are farther apart on the Great Plains, he said.
The state should be leery of developing projects where homeowners could experience problems similar to those found in the Green Bay area project, McKeever said.