By Brian E. Clark
After years of working on compromises for the siting of wind turbines in Wisconsin, Jeff Anthony says he was blindsided earlier this month when Gov. Scott Walker proposed changes that Anthony argues would preclude future wind energy developments in the state.
“Walker was elected on a pro-jobs platform, but this proposal would be a job killer in Wisconsin,” said Anthony, a Milwaukee-based official with the American Wind Energy Association. “We’re left scratching our heads.”
Anthony said wind energy advocates are dismayed because they believed they had reached agreement through a process that included legislative hearings and a regulatory rule-making process that allowed “all the issues to the be aired, vetted and explored.”
“From our perspective, this was a three-year collaborative process that engaged stakeholders, the Legislature, the Public Service Commission (PSC) and a wind-siting council. No stakeholder got everything they were looking for. But we believe all groups had a fair shot at contributing to this compromise, which was a workable one.”
Setback rules adopted by the PSC last year and set to go into effect in March would mean wind turbines would have to be 1,250 feet (roughly four football fields) from the nearest residence. But Walker’s proposal, backed by the Wisconsin Realtors Association, would increase the setback to 1,800 feet from the nearest property line.
That change would make it “nearly impossible to site the wind projects operating in Wisconsin today, as well as the other wind projects that are slated to go on line in the next year or two.”
The Walker legislation could mean that a wind turbine would need a buffer as large as 360 acres, according to wind energy advocates.
Though the proposed law would not affect current wind projects, Anthony said he is concerned that “Wisconsin would be hanging out a ‘Closed For Business’ sign when it comes to the construction and operation of any new wind projects.”
“It would definitely have a negative and chilling effect on the manufacture of wind turbines and components, which has started to take off in the past few years. Those companies are less likely to land in Wisconsin because they want to be close to where their products are going to be used.”
Anthony gave the example of Ingeteam, a Spanish company that makes wind turbine generators. It announced last year it will open a plant this spring in Milwaukee.
“They spent a considerable amount of time scouting the U.S. looking for a place for their first manufacturing facility in the U.S.,” he said.
“It was clear in the six-or seven-step process they went through to site a location, one of them was proximity to facilities where their products are being installed.
“But if Wisconsin becomes known as a state that has shut the door to further wind project installations, other companies aren’t going to look at Wisconsin. Milwaukee won’t look as good as Michigan or the southwest corner of Minnesota where a lot of activity is happening. Or Des Moines, which is a place where a great number of wind company manufacturing operations have taken hold.”
Likewise, he said Manitowoc’s Tower Tech, which supplied towers to the Shirley Wind project near Green Bay and is building towers for the Glacier Hills project north of Madison, would be affected by the proposed setback changes.
“These towers are huge components and they cost a considerable amount of money to transport from the factory to where they are going up,” he said. “Companies aren’t stupid. They are going to go where their costs are minimized to beat their competitors and where their products will be most successful.”
Anthony said he does not believe Ingeteam will pull up stakes from Milwaukee or Tower Tech would leave Manitowoc, though he doubts if other wind energy manufacturing firms would locate in Wisconsin if the Walker plan becomes law.
Anthony said the Badger State already lags behind most other Midwestern states in terms of wind energy power production.
“We have nearly 450 megawatts of wind power up and running,” he said. “That puts us ahead of Michigan, but behind Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa.
“Wisconsin has had very onerous siting restrictions. That’s why the whole issue was taken up by the Legislature and the PSC to provide consistency, so project developers would know what the rules were in Wisconsin.”
He said the package was designed so developers wouldn’t face a patchwork of regulations county by county and township by township around the state.”
Anthony said the rules adopted by the PSC last year remain restrictive compared to other states.
“They are not ideal for the wind energy industry,” he said. “A 1,250-foot setback from nearest residence is a fairly restrictive regulation. But it came out of compromise process. Wind project developers realized they could work with that and projects could go forward in the state.”
He said extending that to 1,800 feet would dell developers, “No, we don’t want your projects in Wisconsin.”
According to published reports, the new 11 new projects under consideration in Wisconsin would cost $1.8 billion and produce 700 megawatts of electricity. Assembling the towers would produce hundreds of jobs during construction and six to eight people per project for maintenance.
In addition, each wind farm should produce $1.5 to $2 million per year in taxes for the jurisdictions hosting the projects, as well as payments to landowners on whose property the towers are erected, Anthony said.
“That’s a huge amount of money flowing in from out of state,” he said. “But if this proposal becomes law, they won’t happen. It will flow to Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota and the wind industry in Wisconsin will be stopped from growing.”