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Aviator opposition causes near miss in Wisconsin

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Wisconsin Public Service's 9.2 MW wind farm is back on track after sidestepping a late attempt to halt the project based on federal aviation rules. The utility has worked out a deal with the owner of a local air strip, avoiding a run-in with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and more importantly with the local planning board.

The 14 turbine wind farm near Green Bay, Wisconsin, is being built by Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) in response to a state mandate. After a contentious siting process, the wind farm received approval in November from the Town of Lincoln siting board (Windpower Monthly, 1998). But since then disgruntled locals found a new avenue to block the project-a nearby airstrip used for small planes. A concerted letter writing campaign resulted in 27 letters to the FAA, including one from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's Bureau of Aeronautics, complaining that the wind turbines posed a hazard to planes.

To meet FAA rules, the wind farm would have had to be equipped with a 300 foot tower with a light on top as a warning signal to planes landing at Walters Agri-Center Airport, in nearby Algoma. The grass landing strip has no lights, so no planes land at night. About five planes are stored in the single hanger at the strip, which is used primarily by hobby flyers, fishing expeditions and sky-divers.

Since the new tower would have required an additional permit from the siting board, opponents had another chance to block the project. On March 31, the zoning board voted 3-2 against allowing the light tower, thus killing the project. But a week later WPS struck a deal with Don Walter, the owner of Walters Airport. In exchange for a payment reported to be $100,000, Walter agreed to change the status of the airfield from public to private, thus removing it from regulatory oversight by the FAA and the Wisconsin transport department. As a result, no light tower will be needed, and thus no further permits.

WPS has now begun construction of foundations and electrical infrastructure and hopes to complete the project in June, in time to be eligible for wind's federal production tax credit before it expires. WPS is using Vestas 660 kW turbines.

The narrow miss has led some to call for standards to avoid future problems. "I think AWEA should get a standard procedure from FAA for lighting, rather than deciding on a case by case basis," says Paul Helgeson, renewables engineer for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. "What's needed is a policy."

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