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Future of wind farms uncertain in Wisconsin

Michael Vickerman, policy and program director for RENEW Wisconsin, isn’t sure which direction the air will blow for Wisconsin wind farms in the years to come.

“The future is pretty cloudy,” Vickerman said.

But he does have an idea. With Wisconsin utilities on the verge of reaching a state-wide renewable energy goal of 10 percent by 2015, Vickerman thinks it’s unlikely to see the same push for large wind farms that developed soon after the goal was set by legislators in 2006.

From 2008 to 2011, several energy companies constructed large sites with turbine numbers ranging from 36 to 90, according to RENEW Wisconsin, an advocacy group that pushes for renewable energy in the state. We Energies opened the state’s largest farm, Glacier Hills Wind Park, at the end of 2011 in Columbia County. The park can generate 162 megawatts of electricity and can power about 45,000 homes.

With the energy goal in sight – around 8.8 percent – any future turbine development will not be associated with meeting the state’s standard, Vickerman said. If companies do pursue wind power, it will be about fulfilling their business’ personal sustainability goals.

As an example, he pointed to SC Johnson, a company that built two wind turbines to help operate its Waxdale manufacturing facility near Racine. The turbines began turning in December and can produce about 8 million kilowatt hours each year – an amount able to power 700 homes annually.

We Energies, which has four wind energy sites around the state, is largely responsible for pushing the state toward the 10 percent mark. An additional percentage boost will also come from a new biomass-fueled cogeneration power plant at the Domtar Corporation’s paper mill site in Rothschild, which is expected to open at the end of the year.

“We don’t have any plans for additional wind farms,” said We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey. He explained that the state’s goal was a big part in building the wind sites, and the sites themselves are only one component of the company’s renewable energy efforts that also includes hydro plants.

There’s another reason Vickerman thinks larger wind farms are unlikely in the future.

Farmers really like wind projects, he explained, which is one reason the turbines usually rise up near flat farm fields like those in Iowa. Placing turbines in or near populated areas is a bit more tricky, especially when it comes to pleasing locals about the project.

“Wisconsin is far from ideal for wind development,” he said.