A battle over siting of turbines in Wisconsin has practically stalled wind development in a state where the results of November's elections have pitted Republicans against Democrats on several issues.
The conflict surfaced when first-term Republican governor Scott Walker, aided by his centre-right party's return to a legislative majority in the lower house of the US parliament, suspended statewide turbine-siting guidelines hours after they went into effect on March 1.
The guidelines, approved by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) in December to eliminate the regulatory patchwork that existed in various counties, called for a setback distance of 3.1 times the height of a turbine. This means a 125-metre turbine would need to be sited at least 387.5 metres away from neighbouring property.
But shortly after taking office in January, Walker proposed a bill that mandated a minimum distance of 550 metres from property lines. Although Walker withdrew the bill following widespread resistance, he quickly convened a special legislative committee that suspended the PSC guidelines with a 5-2 vote along party lines.
Wisconsin ranks 18th among US states in wind power potential and maintains 469MW online. But while the state is calling for 10% renewable energy by 2015, there has been a growing trend to import additional wind power from nearby states. This imported total recently reached 330MW.
"You absolutely will see wind moving out of Wisconsin and into other states," says Bill French, project developer for Chicago-based Midwest Wind Energy. "You're just not going to beat your head against the wall in Wisconsin if you don't think there's an opportunity to get things done."
Midwest Wind has completed two projects in Wisconsin: the 54MW Butler Ridge wind farm in 2009 and the 68MW Cedar Ridge in 2008 - and was developing the 98MW Stony Brook project when the guidelines were suspended. "Stony Brook is in limbo," French says. "There's almost no way to develop in Wisconsin with a 550-metre setback from property lines. We hope this gets resolved in a reasonable manner."
Yet many wind advocates believe the issue goes beyond setback distances and involves a struggle over property development spearheaded by organised landowners who see wind turbines as a threat to land value and real-estate developments. The best wind resources are in the eastern-central part of the state, which encompasses Lake Winnebago, Lake Michigan and the Fox River Valley - areas where farm fields border residential property.
"You have kind of a ledge overlooking the valley and the wealthy like to live up on the crest of this ledge," says Michael Vickerman, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, a renewable-energy advocacy. "That's where the wind is."
A handful of projects comprising roughly 500MW have been proposed in the region and, according to Vickerman, wealthy landowners and powerful lobbyists aim to stop them. "They worked hard to elect Scott Walker," Vickerman says. "They pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into his campaign and this is their reward."
But Tom Larson, chief lobbyist for the Wisconsin Realtors Association, adamantly disagrees that neighbouring property owners are not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) advocates and says that an increased setback will satisfy their concerns.
Vickerman, however, believes Larson is being disingenuous and notes that the PSC-proposed setback multiplier of 3.1 would rank among the most restrictive policies in the US. "This fight is 95% about aesthetics and perceived property-value impact," he says. "It has almost nothing to do with anything else."
Jeff Anthony, director of business development for the American Wind Energy Association, also fears a ripple effect that goes beyond lost jobs and tax revenues for Wisconsin. "We're concerned about the manufacturing sector as well," he says. "If they think the state is closed to project development, that's going to be one mark against siting new facilities or expanding existing facilities within the state."
Meanwhile, police were dispatched to a meeting of the Glenmore town board early last month, when 100 residents became unruly over permits for siting seven turbines, according to local press reports. The board initially voted to approve the permits but, after heated debate, reconsidered - choosing instead to wait 60 days before deciding. In late March Invenergy canceled plans for a 150MW project.
If no follow-up bill is passed this session, the suspended PSC rules go back into effect. "But there is speculation that the legislature will act to permanently suspend the rules, sending everything back to the drawing board," says Katherine Roek, an attorney with Lindquist and Vennum. Simply by introducing legislation, Roek adds, Republicans may keep the suspension intact throughout the session.