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Head to head over community wind

In a backlash against big wind power stations in Wisconsin, a mini campaign led by wind advocate Mike Mangan is arguing that only dispersed siting of wind turbines be allowed, even though these projects are less economic than utility scale development.

In the state of Wisconsin in the US Midwest, the idea of "community" has been challenging the concept of large scale wind development, splitting wind advocates into two camps that disagree on a common ground. One specific case that has both sides pointing fingers is a 30 MW wind project planned by big US developer FPL Energy in Addison, only 35 miles from the city of Milwaukee. What was to have been an informational meeting about the project in October 1999 turned into a local confrontation. More than 500 people showed up to voice their opposition, but were instead turned away (Windpower Monthly, November 1999). Since then the project has been downsized to 25 MW, turbines relocated and two utilities have backed out. A conditional use permit is still pending approval.

"When we first got engaged in the project, we didn't do what we should have done in the community to gain support," says Carol Clawson of FPL Energy. "Since then we've been reaching out to the community and the tide is turning. We've learned the lesson that we need to engage in a dialogue early on in the project."

The founder and main driver of the Wisconsin Coalition for Community Wind (WCCW), Mike Mangan, believes mistakes like those made in Addison will lead to the demise of large scale wind projects in the Midwest. "Wind is the new cash crop for the state, but we need due diligence to maximise the economic benefit and keep family farms alive," Mangan says. "The bottom line is economic sustainability."

According to Mangan, this so-called economic sustainability occurs only when projects are owned and sited in "micro areas" where the energy is also used. His model project is a wind turbine station for local schools in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and he praises the success of small wind co-operatives in Denmark. In short, he advocates scattering utility scale wind turbines across the landscape instead of concentrating them in utility scale wind farms. Mangan says turbines should only be built in clusters of up to three machines and his coalition group opposes any project that does not fit that description. Small, dispersed projects will gain greater public support and result in more wind development in the long run, he argues.

OVERREACTING

RENEW Wisconsin's Michael Vickerman, a long time wind advocate, admits there will be opposition to some wind projects but that Mangan and WCCW are overreacting. "I don't think all the large projects generate opposition, nor are all small projects welcomed," Vickerman says. In fact, he adds, there are some factors that work against small scale wind.

For one, investors perceive more risk in small projects. Until they realise that wind is as secure an investment as natural gas generation, they will be hesitant to finance small projects, he says. And even after investors become comfortable with wind, there will always be a cost penalty for small scale projects due to their higher installation, operation and maintenance costs, all of which are divided among fewer kilowatt hours, he says.

Not black and white

Greg Jaunich, president of renewables developer Navitas Energy, formerly Northern Alternative Energy, says the debate over large or small scale wind projects is not as black and white as Mangan describes. "We certainly have competed for larger projects, but on the whole, our focus has been on small dispersed projects," Jaunich says. "We don't take an adversarial position either way. Large wind projects make better sense economically, especially in sparsely populated areas."

On the other hand, he says, many people have retired and built hobby farms in places like eastern Wisconsin. In areas like this or near urban centres, residents do not want to look at 100 turbines, and these are areas where large scale wind should not be developed, Jaunich says. It is up to the developer to know what is appropriate and to be sensitive to what a community wants.

Mangan is leading a new effort he calls "Windsconsin" that would put 300 MW of dispersed wind in 426 Wisconsin school districts by 2010. He has also run several times for state office on a dispersed wind campaign.

In November, Mangan opposed a 25.5 MW wind farm by Enron Wind near Eden, Wisconsin, but the Iowa County Board said the project was supported by the community and approved it quickly. Construction of the 17, 1.5 MW Enron Wind turbines is underway, and power will be sold to Wisconsin Electric. FPL Energy bought the project from Enron last month.

Other large Wisconsin wind projects have not faired as well, Mangan points out. He says Madison Gas & Electric met with resistance in Stockbridge Township when the utility proposed an 11 MW project. The project was then moved to Lincoln, but after it was built that town slapped an 18 month moratorium on wind projects until it could look at the wind turbines' impact on the community. According to Mangan, nearby Door County then passed a limit of one turbine to ten acres, ultimately closing the door on any future large wind projects in that county.

"That was a backlash that didn't exist before," Mangan says. "These projects need to take more of a soft-sciences approach, with more local ownership and control. For communities to want wind, they have to accept and embrace it like they have with water towers."

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