State must eliminate roadblocks to wind energy

Posted on December 21, 2007. Filed under: Energy Policy, Wind |

The Wisconsin State Journal ran this commentary from Michael Vickerman, RENEW’s executive director, as a guest column on September 3, 2007:

When FPL Energy’s windpower project in southwest Wisconsin was completed in 2001, it became the largest of its kind in the state. The 20 turbines visible from U.S. Highway 18 more than doubled Wisconsin’s wind generating capacity. Support for the Montfort project was rock-solid at every level, from local landowners to the Iowa County Board, and the windpower plant was approved without a dissenting vote.

Six years later Montfort still remains Wisconsin’s largest wind installation. While construction has started on two larger installations near Fond du Lac, local opponents slowed their progress with lawsuits. And, like a contagious disease, citizen litigiousness is spreading fast. In the last 18 months, lawsuits have been filed in Calumet and Manitowoc counties, each with the aim of stopping proposed windpower plants from being built.

In the face of local pressure, three counties—Manitowoc, Shawano and Door–adopted ordinances with setback requirements so stringent as to render commercial wind development impossible. The popular Montfort project, which continues to impress visitors who have never seen a wind farm before, could not be built in those jurisdictions now.

And the problem is spreading. A moratorium on wind turbines remains in effect in Trempealeau County while officials there finalize an arbitrarily restrictive set of rules that will effectively prevent turbines from being installed, including those designed for personal use.

In many areas in Wisconsin, it is now easier to obtain a permit for a large confined animal operation or a regional landfill than a commercial wind facility. Even community-scale efforts, like the three-turbine project proposed near Evansville, are running into opposition.

Where resistance to specific wind proposals springs up, local governments often buckle under the pressure. The result is delay, restrictive ordinances that effectively halt wind projects from proceeding, and litigation.

Why are these opposition groups so effective? In large part they capitalize on local government’s unfamiliarity with wind generators. How many county supervisors, planning officials and town board members have actually walked around Montfort’s turbines and listened to them up close? Clearly too few, because if they had, they would learn that the sound from these turbines is undetectable at a distance of 1,000 feet.

State law forbids local governments from restricting or blocking wind energy projects unless the condition serves to protect public health and safety. Unfortunately, the law leaves it up to local jurisdictions to establish the appropriate standards for setback distances and sound output. Needless to say, these standards vary widely from one local unit of government to another, even though turbine size and operating characteristics don’t change when crossing political boundaries.

While the Public Service Commission has developed reasonable standards for siting wind projects, they only apply to projects greater than 100 megawatts. However, the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin’s wind projects are smaller, and, under current law, the PSC has no say over their fate. This disconnect must not be allowed to persist.

This dynamic is unfortunate, in that town and county governments are predisposed to be more sensitive to local concerns than to state renewable energy requirements. There is no way Wisconsin utilities can comply with the state’s new renewable energy standard, let alone a potentially higher one, so long as the number of local jurisdictions adopting unreasonable siting standards continues to grow.

Wind energy is the only renewable resource that is both cost-effective and scalable to utility operating systems. Many public policy objectives, ranging from economic development to environmental protection, are compromised when opposition groups are effectively allowed to control when, where and how much windpower to build.

The state can remedy this situation in two ways. One, it can establish uniform siting standards applicable to all projects above a certain size, as was done with large livestock operations. Second, it should give commercial wind developers pursuing smaller proposals the option of applying to the PSC for approval.

To talk about increasing renewable energy requirements before fixing the problems confronting wind development here is to, as the hoary cliché goes, put the cart before the horse.


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