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In Wisconsin, politics continue to hold back wind development

A wind farm near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. (Photo by digidave via Creative Commons)

A wind farm near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. (Photo by digidave via Creative Commons)

More than two years after Wisconsin completed a bipartisan process to establish statewide standards for siting wind turbines, development remains sluggish amid continuing political pushback.

In 2012, a year that saw a nationwide surge in wind farm installations as developers rushed to beat expiring tax credits, Wisconsin added only 18 megawatts of capacity.

By comparison, Michigan and Ohio, with much lower wind potential, had already installed 138 MW and 308 MW in just the first three quarters.

Compared to other Midwestern states, Wisconsin ranks at the bottom in both wind projects under construction and in queue, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Challenges to wind energy have come from nearly every level of government.

Shortly after taking office in 2011, Gov. Scott Walker proposed a plan supported by the state’s Realtors Association that would upend the new standards. That effort, and other bills to weaken or repeal the new rules, have failed to gain broader support in the state legislature.

New on the state’s legislative docket this spring are a bill that would allow local governments to adopt more stringent restrictions on wind farms than current state law allows, and another that would clear the way for legal action against wind facilities.

Both come from first-term Republican state senator Frank Lasee, whose district includes the area south and east of Green Bay, including Door County and part of the wind-rich Niagara Escarpment. In just a little more than 2 years, Lassee has now produced 7 legislative charges against wind energy.

Seeking to override state guidelines

Wind facility siting in Wisconsin is governed by the state’s Public Service Commission under a 2009 law which emerged from several years of negotiation.

The law told the PSC to craft wind siting guidelines, administrative code now referred to as PSC 128. These uniform guidelines were meant to provide a more predictable business environment for the wind industry, as opposed to an inconsistent patchwork of local rules.

Siting is also informed by the technical expertise of the PSC, which local units of government frequently lack.

Lasee’s SB 71 would allow local officials to impose stricter guidelines than those allowed by the PSC.

“The science is showing these industrial wind turbines are causing harm,” argues Lasee policy adviser Robert Kovach, and current law prevents local officials from enacting ordinances they feel might be necessary to protect the health and safety of their constituents.

Michael Vickerman, program & policy director of RENEW Wisconsin, said Lasee’s proposal effectively derails the original—and, he emphasizes, bipartisan—bill.

From the detailed application procedure through decommissioning requirements, he argues that Wisconsin has the most protective statewide wind permitting standards in the country.

“The primary physical impacts are sound and shadow, and there the standard is very strict,” he says.

Expanding rights to sue

The second Lasee bill, planned for introduction later this month, raises the stakes on sound impacts even further.

The bill allows anyone living within 1.5 miles to sue both the landowner and the owner/operator of the turbine for loss of property value, moving costs, medical expenses, pain and suffering, attorney fees, “and any other loss as a result of the industrial wind turbine.” A turbine operator would not be able to argue in their defense that the facility had been properly permitted.

The effort strikes a nerve more broadly with environmental advocates in Wisconsin.

The current Republican majority has made a point of limiting the ability of citizens to sue corporations for damages, beginning with a major tort reform law passed in 2011 and, most recently, in contentious mining legislation.

Lasee supported both bills, and even now has another tort reform bill before the legislature.

However, Lasee’s office resists the comparison. “The mining law does not effect tort law,” insists Kovach. “Any private person who is harmed by a mining operation is still protected and still allowed to file suit for a private nuisance.”

But Amber Meyer Smith of Clean Wisconsin calls that argument disingenuous.

“They just took away all these legal rights for people who live near a mine,” she says.

The mining law limits legal recourse by removing contested case hearings, eliminates a citizen’s right to directly sue the mining company for legal violations, and sets the venue for legal action in the county of the mine, rather than the county downstream where damage is most likely to occur.

Compared to Lasee’s proposal, “it certainly seems like a change of heart for Republicans who tout tort reform,” says Meyer Smith.

Focus on noise concerns

The faces of Lasee’s campaign are three homeowners in his district who say they have been driven out by noise from an eight-turbine facility in Shirley, Wisconsin.

While there are numerous anecdotal claims blaming a wide range of health symptoms on wind turbines, multiple scientific studies have so far failed to establish a clear connection, although research is ongoing.

Last December, a small observational study funded by the Public Service Commission and organized by Clean Wisconsin looked more closely at the Shirley wind farm claims.

The study, conducted by four independent consulting firms, was inconclusive and called for further research. But its limited findings nevertheless prompted another state lawmaker, Rep. Andre Jacque, to call for a moratorium on wind permits, “to keep this nightmare from spreading.”

A few weeks later, on January 21, the Wisconsin Towns Association adopted a moratorium on wind development, calling for the PSC to “implement standards that address ultra low frequency sound and infrasound from wind turbines.”

The declaration marked a turnaround from the WTA’s initial support of legislation that ultimately led to PSC 128. While their default mode is local control, executive director Rick Stadelman says the towns are open to uniform state standards that work, citing as an example Wisconsin’s large livestock facility rules.

“Our position changed because of a response by members,” he said. “One of our basic responsibilities is to protect health and welfare. At this point we don’t think that the current PSC rules offer that protection.”

The WTA moratorium is strictly advisory, but the town of Sherman, in Sheboygan County, recently took it up, formally asking the PSC for a moratorium as they consider an application for a four-turbine development, citing concerns about potential health impacts.

Legislation lacks momentum

The PSC appears to be treading lightly around the subject.

On February 14 the Wisconsin Public Service Commission rejected the 41 turbine, 102.5 megawatts Highland project in St. Croix County. The PSC said it needed a “clearer record and a better demonstration that noise from the wind turbines would not exceed Commission standards.”

Under the ruling, the developer may reapply with improved sound modeling and more information. The PSC is also beginning a legislatively mandated review of scientific research collected since PSC 128 was crafted. That report is due to the legislature in October of 2014.

Despite the pushback, support for the current siting laws remains strong. SB 71 received a March 13 hearing, but is otherwise languishing in committee, and appears to lack enough support from Republican colleagues to advance.

The legal recourse bill is currently being shopped for co-sponsors, but Vickerman doubts it will even win a hearing. A recent editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal urged legislators to reject Lasee’s proposal.

Wind on the Wires representative Chris Kunkle says he is dismayed by Lasee’s continued activism. The proposed change to the siting rules would return the system to a very arbitrary framework and “continue to perpetuate uncertainty.” And there is nothing like the legal recourse bill operating anywhere in the country.

“What he’s doing is incredibly detrimental to the industry. It’s fear-mongering,” says Kunkle. “As long as he’s screaming from the rooftops about this it’s going to continue to hamper development in this state.”

RENEW Wisconsin, Clean Wisconsin and Wind on the Wires are members of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Erik Ness has reported about science and the environment for more than 20 years from Madison, Wisconsin. You can reach him at howl@linedried.com

Comments (8)

Get real.
1. Wisconsin already produces more electricity than it needs.
2. Wind power is in terms of pollution abatement because utilities have to have a CONSTANT STREAM of power from a generating source, and wind cannot do that.
3. Wind energy developers wouldn’t even exist if it were not for the tax breaks they get from the federal government; without those tax breaks, wind is not economically viable.
4. The initial developers build these wind farms and then most sell them after making a quick profit.

The whole industry is a scam. Did you just read and copy press releases from the wind energy developers? This story is not journalism.

By Edward Byrne on Apr 18, 2013

If we need to fight global warming then we need solutions that work. However, INDUSTRIAL WIND TURBINES ARE A SHAM AND DO NOT PROVIDE CLEAN ENERGY! Not one coal or gas plant the world over has been decommissioned because of IWTs…and eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels is their whole purpose. To quote an expert: “Because wind blows intermittently, electric utilities must either keep their conventional power plants running all the time to make sure the lights don’t go dark, or continually ramp up and down the output from conventional coal-or gas-fired generators (called “cycling”). But coal-fired and gas-fired generators are designed to run continuously, and if they don’t, fuel consumption and emissions generally increase.” This is happening worldwide, and in places like Colorado and Texas where CO2 and power plant pollution have increased since installing wind farms:
http://www.forbes.com/2011/07/19/wind-energy-carbon.htmlhttp://www.denverpost.com/headlines/ci_15081808
http://www.clepair.net/IerlandUdo.html
http://www.thespec.com/news/ontario/article/610422–cost-of-green-energy-40-higher-than-government-estimates
The wind industry is built on crony capitalism, it is the only way it can exist. The Federal Production Tax Credit and double-declining depreciation are the main fuels. Taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies build them and power companies are mandated to buy wind generated power at much higher rates than conventionally produced power. There is no true benefit, except to wind power companies, politicians and lobbyists.

By Billslycat on Apr 18, 2013

This article is filled with quotes from pro wind activists that are not true or at the very least glossed over. The continued actions on the part of the wind power industry to suppress the truth & not take responsibility for their actions towards the people they have harmed & lied to is despicable. People deserve to be fully compensated & all responsible parties held accountable. Nobody has the right to destroy someone else’s quality of living. FYI: the committee that crafted PSC128 was heavily stacked with pro-wind advocates & at least one impostor who admitted he was not a qualified expert as initially thought. The whole 128 was a big rubber stamp IMO. Vickerman himself has been caught several times misleading the public with untrue statements.

By 2smart4u on Apr 18, 2013

Thank you, Senator Lasee for protecting Wisconsin citizens from the oppressive noise of wind turbines. It is not politics that holds back turbines; it’s that they aren’t very useful.

By Rolf Westgard on Apr 19, 2013

@2smart4u: What are some examples of things in the article that are untrue? Who was the “imposter” on the wind siting committee? Who “caught” Vickerman and what did he say that was misleading?

And Rolf — you’re a science guy — what qualifies as “oppressive noise,” how is it quantified, and how does that differ from what’s covered in the state statute?

These are sincere questions. Looking forward to hearing more specific answers.

By Ken Paulman on Apr 19, 2013

The fossil fools eager to defend the status quo assign no cost to degradation of the planet. Priceless.

By Bea on Apr 19, 2013

Yes Billslycat windpower might not be the answer to all are problems, but it can help reduce our dependance on fossile fuels. We need to start making changes and that means by relying not only on wind engery, but other green energy sources as well. By combining green energy sources we can produce energy on days when the wind does not blow.

We need change and we need people to work together to make these changes possible.

By Live2Hunt on Apr 21, 2013

Windpower is ALL OVER the counties near PURDUE UNIV.
in IN.! How can we be so short-sighted?! We need a “regime change”…

By Gerri Friedberg, M.A. on May 1, 2013