The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin voted 2-1 on Thursday, Feb. 14, to deny an application from Highland Wind Farm, LLC, for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity to construct a 102.5 megawatt (MW) wind electric facility in the Towns of Forest and Cylon in St. Croix County.
The action, however, does not mean the project is dead.
The majority commissioners noted that better proof that audible noise from the wind turbines would not exceed state standards was needed before making a decision to approve the project. State standards require that decibel levels from turbines not exceed 45 at night or 50 during the day.
According to Matthew Pagel, communications and policy liaison for the PSC, the application that was denied was unclear when it came to audible noise levels of turbines near homes. Based on Highland’s application, Pagel said, state standards might or might not be exceeded at some 20 homes in Forest if the project was installed.
Commissioners told Highland Wind Farm, LLC, representatives that the company will be able to reapply if additional information related to audible sound and its impact on nearby homes is presented in a subsequent application.
According to Jay Mundinger, founding principal with Emerging Energies of Wisconsin LLC, developer of the proposed project, the company expects to continue its quest for PSC approval.
Mundinger said the developers appreciated the guidance PSC commissioners provided at last week’s meeting and officials have begun work on a new application.
“Highland heard loud and clear from the commission yesterday regarding sound issues and concerns of local residences,” he said.
Jaime Junker, chairman of the Town of Forest Board, said he was pleased that the Highland application was denied.
Junker estimated that the rural township had spent more than $100,000 over the past two years to fight the wind farm project and the PSC decision showed that the expense was worth it.
“Today’s news of the PSC denying the project was wonderful news for the town and the residents that have sacrificed to participate in this important debate at the state,” he said.
Junker said he hopes that any future applications for a wind farm project in Forest would be delayed until the state conducts additional studies on the health impact of turbines, and until the township finishes it proposed new zoning rules.
While the focus of the PSC denial appeared to surround testing related to audible sound generated by such turbines, Junker said he felt the commissioners may have been uncomfortable with other aspects of the wind farm which led to their split decision.
He said low frequency, inaudible sound emitted by turbines is a growing concern in the industry and PSC members are beginning to recognize that fact. He said testimony from several families who suffered ill effects while living near a wind farm may have spoken volumes to the commissioners.
At last week’s meeting, commissioners did comment on the alleged health impact of wind turbines but noted that studies are inconclusive at this point. They noted that concerns about low-frequency sound would not have a bearing on the approval process for Highland, but would be considered if future wind farms are proposed across Wisconsin.
Brenda Salseg, a member of the Forest Voice, a citizen group opposed to the Highland plan, said she was thrilled with the PSC decision as well.
“The Forest Voice has believed from the start that irresponsible siting of wind turbines too close to homes is the base issue with industrial wind energy resulting in neighbor health problems such as sleep deprivation, nausea, headaches, ear pain, and dizziness, all consistent with the effects of infrasound and low frequency noise,” she said.
Salseg said the Highland project would have been five times as large as the Shirley Wind project in eastern Wisconsin, which has resulted in three families leaving their homes due to health issues allegedly related to the operation of industrial turbines. She claimed the Highland project would likely have resulted in even more health problems for more people.
Not everyone is convinced that health impacts exist. Clean Wisconsin, a non-profit clean energy advocacy organization, issued a press release a short time after the PSC’s decision.
“Study after study has proven that wind farms are a clean, safe and economic way to produce energy,” said Katie Nekola, attorney for Clean Wisconsin.
She noted that the PSC decision only delays the Highland project and does not stop it. She said her organization will continue to work with Emerging Energies to make the wind farm a reality.
In December of 2011, Highland filed an application with the commission for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) to construct a new wind electric generation facility.
The project would have included the construction of up to 44 wind turbines, with an electric generating capacity of up to 102.5 megawatts.
A smaller wind farm was considered and approved by the Town of Forest in 2010. But after the Forest Town Board was recalled by voters due to the controversy, and the previous approvals were reversed, Emerging Energies reapplied with the state with a larger project. Wind farms of more than 100 kW fall under the state’s approval process.
Since then, the PSC has conducted various hearings and thousands of pages of testimony and research have been added to the case record.