The only major wind farm on the drawing board in Wisconsin was dealt a setback this week when a St. Croix County judge sent the project back to state energy regulators for more review.
Judge Edward F. Vlack decided that the state Public Service Commission erred when it set restrictions on the amount of noise that the wind turbines can produce.
The Highland Wind Farm in the Town of Forest in St. Croix County is a $250 million project proposed by Emerging Energies, a Wisconsin wind project developer. Roughly 41 to 44 turbines are planned for the western Wisconsin project.
At issue for the court was the PSC’s finding that the wind developer would be considered in compliance with state noise standards if measurements of noise from turbines demonstrate that they are within maximum decibel levels 95% of the time – or just under 23 hours a day.
Vlack said the commission had previously expressed concern that more information was needed before imposing that kind of standard, and because of that said it’s important for the PSC to ensure it has sufficient grounds for allowing the 95% standard.
The decision heads back to the PSC, and what happens next is unclear.
“The commission is currently reviewing the 115-page decision just released by the court,” said Elise Nelson, a PSC spokeswoman. “Until we have completed that review, it would be premature to comment.”
Both sides see positives
Bill Rakocy, a principal with Emerging Energies, said the court ruling was positive in some respects but said he was disappointed that more review of the project is needed.
“We certainly wish it was a more affirmative and definitive action, but the PSC has always done a great job of evaluating and making sure that all interests are covered,” Rakocy said. “And we’ll just have to leave it in their capable hands.”
Brenda Salseg, spokeswoman for The Forest Voice, a group that formed to oppose the project, said that she had not seen the decision but that the group was pleased with the ruling sending the matter back to the PSC.
The makeup of the PSC has changed since it voted to approve the project.
The PSC approved the Highland Wind Farm in 2013 in a 2-to-1 vote. One of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s appointees, Chairperson Phil Montgomery, joined Democrat Eric Callisto in support of the project, while Commissioner Ellen Nowak, also appointed by Walker, was opposed.
Walker this year selected Nowak to replace Montgomery at the helm of the agency, and then appointed Michael Huebsch, a former GOP lawmaker and secretary of the Department of Administration, to succeed Callisto when the Democrat’s term expired.
In voting in 2013 against the wind farm, Nowak cited several concerns and said the state needs to do everything in its power to ensure wind power is not harming nearby residents’ health.
She termed “the failure to impose a 24-hour 40 (decibel) limit at the sensitive residences is a mistake.”
Emerging Energies first started development of the project in 2007 and had received permits from the Town of Forest in 2010.
Opponents later launched a recall that resulted in the town supervisors being voted out of office, and permits for the project were rescinded in 2011.
Later that year, Emerging Energies kept the project alive by expanding the size of the project so that it would need a state rather than a local permit.
Wisconsin utilities have already met the state’s target that requires 10% of electricity sold by utilities to come from renewable sources. A federal Environmental Protection Agency proposal to address emissions linked to global warming could prompt states to set higher targets for renewables.
Wisconsin has joined other states in a suit seeking to block the climate rules.
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