Regulators have approved the purchase of a proposed wind farm in southwestern Wisconsin that is the state’s first project approved under 12-year-old rules designed to make the process easier for developers.
The Public Service Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to authorize Wisconsin Public Service Corp. and Madison Gas and Electric to spend $162 million on the Red Barn Wind Farm as part of long-term strategies to phase out coal-fired power plants and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
With a capacity of just under 92 megawatts, the farm is expected to produce enough electricity to supply about 35,000 typical homes.
Under plans approved by the Grant County board in 2019, the Red Barn Wind Farm would include up to 29 turbines spread across more than 12,000 acres between Montfort, Livingston and Fennimore.
The easternmost turbines would be within about 2 miles of WEC Energy Group’s 20-turbine Montfort Wind Energy Center and several miles from the edge of the 2,200-acre Badger Hollow Solar Farm.
Jointly owned by WEC and MGE, the first half of the 300-megawatt solar farm came online this winter, while the second half is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
WPS will own 90% of the project, with MGE owning the rest. In a move designed to shield ratepayers from unnecessary risk, the utilities will not take possession until the project is completed and operational, which is expected to happen by the end of this year.
With no fuel costs, both utilities say the wind farm will result in “significant customer savings” when compared to continued maintenance and operation of their existing generators.
But the Citizens Utility Board said the regulatory review was rushed and lacked rigor.
The consumer advocate noted WPS’ analysis did not account for recent updates to its parent company WEC Energy Group’s “generation reshaping plan.” Plans to buy a natural gas plant and convert its remaining coal-fired plant to burn gas could “significantly change the economics of WEC’s portfolio,” the group argued.
PSC Chair Rebecca Valcq said CUB’s comments prompted her to take a second look at the project, but she concluded the utilities’ analyses held up to “stress tests” and the project would benefit customers.
Valcq noted the Legislature stripped the commission of its authority to review comprehensive plans.
“That does a disservice to customers and to us at the PSC,” she said. “We are left with looking at these projects as they come to us.”
The wind farm acquisition had support from Renew Wisconsin, the Conservative Energy Forum and a group of health care providers.
“Red Barn will be an economically attractive source of zero-fuel cost, zero-emission electricity that will produce savings for Wisconsin ratepayers and reduce power plant emissions including greenhouse gases for years to come,” said Michael Vickerman, policy director for Renew Wisconsin.
Touting job creation, lease payments to land owners and more than $366,000 in annual revenue for Grant County and the host towns, forum executive director Scott Coenen said Red Barn “offers another glimpse at the promising future of energy generation in our state.”
Red Barn is the first wind farm permitted under wind siting rules the PSC drafted in 2010 in an effort to make the process easier for developers.
In 2011, the GOP-controlled Legislature suspended the rule just as it was about to take effect. Then-newly elected Gov. Scott Walker introduced bills aimed at repealing the rule and creating onerous setback requirements.
Neither bill passed, but Vickerman said the moves spooked developers.
“Wind development activity screeched to a halt,” Vickerman said. “An absolute halt.”
Over the past decade, there has been only one new wind farm built in Wisconsin – the 98-megawatt Quilt Block wind farm in Lafayette County, which was permitted in 2003 but not completed until 2017.
Meanwhile, Minnesota has added more than 2,600 megawatts of new wind capacity, while Iowa has added more than 8,000 megawatts, according to Energy Information Administration data.
“Developers just packed up and went to greener pastures,” Vickerman said. “They didn’t have to go very far.”
While those states have more favorable wind resources and lower population densities, Vickerman expects Wisconsin will see additional wind power development in the coming decade.
The regional grid operator is studying plans for another 3,000 megawatts of wind power in Iowa and almost 2,000 megawatts in Minnesota. Wisconsin has about 1,000 megawatts of wind under study, including a 600-megawatt project in Iowa and Lafayette counties that has already stirred local opposition.
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