To tally up the wind turbines built in Wisconsin over the past five years, you’ll need all of two hands.
At a time when wind farm development is powering ahead in nearby states including Michigan, Illinois and Iowa, Wisconsin has basically been an afterthought for wind power development.
Developers moved on amid widespread opposition to wind farms from residents near proposed projects as well as from Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature, which took steps to restrict wind farm construction during Walker’s first term.
“I was talking to a wind developer the other day,” said Chris Kunkle, policy manager with Minnesota-based Wind on the Wires, a renewable advocacy group. “He said, ‘We don’t even think about building stuff in Wisconsin.’ Wisconsin continues to be in some respect a black hole when companies are looking at where to invest and where they want to create jobs.”
But that could be about to change.
In southwestern Wisconsin, nearly 50 turbines could be built over the next year or so in Lafayette County east of Platteville.
EDP Renewables, a global renewable energy company based in Spain, is looking to build the wind farm in 2017 after completing preparatory work this year, said Vanessa Tutos, director of government affairs at the firm.
The project, valued at about $200 million, would generate up to 99 megawatts of electricity, or just barely under the threshold that would require it to obtain a permit from the state Public Service Commission.
Tutos says permits for the project have been in hand for years but the project is moving ahead now that EDP is in “advanced stages” of negotiating an agreement to sell the power generated by the wind farm.
Meanwhile, state regulators are taking yet another look at a $250 million western Wisconsin wind farm that has been on the drawing board for more than five years.
Emerging Energies of Wisconsin is proposing to build 44 large wind turbines in St. Croix County, but that project has faced stiff opposition from residents.
A PSC permit to allow the project to proceed was challenged in court, and St. Croix County Judge Edward Vlack last summer sent the case back to the commission for more work.
Vlack ruled that the commission needed to do more work on its implementation of noise restrictions put in place to protect property owners living near wind turbines.
The PSC, at its weekly meeting on Friday, decided to reopen the case to hear more evidence about whether more residents near the project should benefit from special nighttime noise restrictions for some of the Highland wind turbines.
In St. Croix County last month, Emerging Energies representatives told town officials they hoped to rekindle a dialogue with the town of Forest in an effort to revive support for the Highland Wind Farm.
It’s important for the town and the county to recognize the economic impact of the project, not only in terms of jobs but also in terms of the boost the project would provide to homeowners and municipal and county budgets, said Bill Rakocy, president of Emerging Energies.
In addition to negotiating leases with property owners who would host turbines on their land, Emerging Energies also has negotiated “good neighbor” payments for residents who don’t host a turbine but would have turbines nearby. In addition, the town of Forest and St. Croix County would be eligible for annual economic impact fees that would exceed $400,000 a year.
“We’ve kind of been quiet and respectful of the court system and stayed on the sidelines and allowed everything to play out, now that the court has spoken and the PSC is dealing with the issue,” Rakocy said. “We just felt it was time for us to re-engage, or hit the reset button.”
In a letter to town residents, Emerging Energies said it hoped to have an improved dialogue with the town about what the project has to offer. “Instead of each side spending hundreds of thousands of dollars litigating this, we look forward to the day when the financial benefits of this project are directed toward and infused into the local community,” the letter stated.
However, Brenda Salseg, spokeswoman for the group The Forest Voice, said opposition to the project has not waned. Concerns about health effects from noise and shadow flicker from wind turbines haven’t abated, she said.
“These huge industrial wind energy complexes don’t belong in residential areas near people’s homes,” she said, adding politics and profit motives are pushing too much development of intermittent energy sources.
It has been five years since Glacier Hills Wind Park, the last major wind farm built in Wisconsin, opened in Columbia County. The We Energies project east of Portage includes 90 turbines.
Since then, three small wind projects have been built by companies looking to improve the sustainability of their operations. They include six turbines built by Verona-based Epic Systems in Dane County as well as a pair of turbines erected in Racine County by S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. Organic Valley Cooperative and Gundersen Health System also collaborated on a small project.
Utilities have not been pushing more wind farms in recent years because they have already built enough to comply with Wisconsin’s law requiring 10% of the state’s electricity to come from renewable power sources.
But wind power development in other nearby states is soaring, up 45% in five nearby states compared with growth of 3% in Wisconsin, according to an analysis of market data from the American Wind Energy Association.
Since 2011, Michigan has quadrupled its wind power capacity and now has more than twice as much wind energy installed as Wisconsin.
But Dairyland Power Cooperative of La Crosse, which this month announced a series of big solar projects, is expected to make an announcement soon regarding a wind energy investment.
In addition, Xcel Energy is moving forward with more wind power development in the Upper Midwest, in part because the costs have come down and in part to comply with more aggressive wind targets established by Minnesota’s Legislature.
EDP declined to disclose the name of the utility with which it is negotiating, but Tutos says her company is in “the advanced stage of negotiation” on a power-purchase agreement for the Seymour Township wind development west of Darlington.
Since the project was first floated in the early 2000s, the costs of producing wind energy have declined as technology has improved. Today’s taller turbines and longer blades have enabled areas that are not as windy as the Great Plains to be eligible for wind development.
Its competitiveness also is enhanced by federal tax credits that are set to phase out early in the next decade.
In preparation for the Obama administration’s greenhouse gas rules, We Energies estimated that it would need to build more wind farms in the years ahead to help the state comply. The rules, known as the Clean Power Plan, were put on hold last month by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“When we look at states where they have embraced wind, we see that they have been making investments but their energy costs are going down over time and continuing to go down,” said Rakocy. “That makes them more attractive to manufacturers, not only from an energy cost perspective but also from the carbon compliance perspective where they’re in an advanced position.”
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