Wisconsin utilities break through public barrier

The approvals last month of nearly 20 MW of wind energy projects in Wisconsin were a victory for wind at the local level, say renewables lobbyists. The approvals should allow developers to allay the many fears of citizens unfamiliar with the technology, thus paving the way for the state's utilities to go beyond their initial 50 MW mandate without further public opposition.

Nearly 20 MW of wind energy projects in Wisconsin planned by Madison Gas and Electric (MG&E) and Wisconsin Public Service Corp (WPS) received siting permission late last month, clearing the way for construction of what will be the largest wind station in the eastern half of the United States. The siting process had been arduous, with increasing public opposition in recent months by residents of Kewaunee county, Wisconsin. The approvals, say renewables lobbyists, are a victory for wind at the local level.

The utilities proposed the wind farms to meet the provisions of the state's Reliability Act. It requires the four utilities in eastern Wisconsin to add a total of 50 MW of renewables. While MG&E and WPS are now ready to proceed with projects, the two other utilities, Alliant Energy and Wisconsin Electric Power, have issued Requests For Proposals (RFPs) to meet the requirements of the law.

The towns of Red River and Lincoln issued conditional use permits to MG&E and WPS for a combined total of 18.5 MW of wind plant, all of it to be made up of Vestas 660 kW turbines from Denmark. MG&E will install 16 units and WPS will install 12. The projects will be complete by July 1. The town of Lincoln turned down a proposal from WPS for two additional turbines, leaving the utility to find another site. Meanwhile, Lincoln is considering a revised application from MG&E for one more unit. If all three of these additional wind turbines are approved, the capacity for the two projects will total 20.5 MW.

"It is difficult to overstate the importance of these approvals," says Michael Vickerman of Renew Wisconsin, a renewables lobby group. "It is significant that two major renewable projects won siting approval at the local level." Wisconsin laws favour wind development, he says: local towns must prove that wind projects pose a threat to public safety in order to block them. "This is a political process," he adds. "Many local people don't understand why this is happening or why wind power is more desirable than a quarry."

Wind values

In meetings with the utility and local officials, residents in Red River and Lincoln have said they are worried about a number of issues. They are focusing on stray voltage, lightning strikes, telecommunications interference and bird kills, says Ron Yesney, an extension agent for the University of Wisconsin who has facilitated the meetings. MG&E has been educating and negotiating with landowners who have agreed to lease land for the turbines. "We are talking about very practical issues, like TV and radio reception. We assure them that what they end up with after turbines are put up is just as good as what they had before," says Jeff Ford, senior analyst for MG&E. One of the sites was near luxury country homes whose owners have feared the turbines would cause a decline in their property values.

Vickerman is clearly relieved at the positive outcome. "The wind farm proposals were at the mercy of local zoning boards, who could have easily forced MG&E and WPS to look elsewhere. Their decision to support renewable generation demonstrates that intelligent developers need not resort to coercive means to win siting approval," he says. Educating about the economic and non economic benefits of renewables is crucial for gaining community support, he adds. Renewables developers who make that effort will fare better than those relying on states to push projects onto "host" communities, he stresses.

paid for by green pricing

Ford notes that MG&E's 11 MW plant is four times the size of the project required by the Reliability Act, but that it was committed to the development before the birth of the mandate. Power from the turbines will be marketed to commercial and residential customers through a green pricing program to start next month, pending the approval of regulators. Customers will buy 100 kWh blocks for a premium ranging from $4 to $5, he says. Todd Steffen from WPS says all rate payers will pay for the power from the company's 9 MW wind plant. Site preparation for both company's projects is expected to begin this month.

Meanwhile, the RFPs issued by Wisconsin Electric Power and Alliant Energy (formerly Wisconsin Power Light) will provide up to 86 MW of renewables if developed. Chris Shoenherr of Wisconsin Electric says the company is reviewing proposals received in response to its RFP for up to 75 MW. A separate project to site two 600 kW turbines is also underway and the company hopes to have the machines up and running by June. Approvals have been received for some sites for those turbines, but he declines to release information on them, given that the other utilities have been having such an adventure with their project siting plans, he says.

Alliant Energy has received enough bid proposals to acquire the 11 MW required by the Reliability Act and is in the midst of reviewing the bids, says the utility's Frank Arevalo. "If the bids are not competitive, we have the option of building our own wind generation," he adds.

In an effort separate from its attempt to meet the mandate, Alliant is now studying green pricing options. It plans initially to use power from its existing hydro plants and wind projects being built in Buena Vista County and Cerro Gordo County in Iowa (next story), says Arevalo. The utility will eventually use premiums collected from the green pricing program to pay for construction of new plants, as requested by environmental groups, he adds. "But for us, the premiums would be so high that no one would participate in the program. The only way to get more participants is to look at our renewables portfolio and try to expand it in a cost effective manner," he says.