Winds of change shift again for Wisconsin’s wind-power industry

Sun Prairie’s Wind Power Happy Hour is back on the social calendar.

Unless you’re someone who follows the wonky ups and downs of the wind energy business in Wisconsin, the return of these periodic get-togethers at Sun Prairie’s Cannery Grill will pass over you like … well, a cool spring breeze.

But if you’re an advocate of wind power or are working in the state’s budding wind industry, next month’s return of the happy hour symbolizes the end to a very unhappy year.

In March 2011, the Wisconsin Legislature voted to set aside rules that would have allowed continued development of most major wind farms. The rules were crafted by the state Public Service Commission late in Gov. Jim Doyle’s tenure. After his 2010 election, Gov. Scott Walker asked if private property rights and public safety could be threatened once the statewide rules took effect.

Wind power critics say turbine towers – up to 40 stories high – are noisy and cause shadow flicker when built too close to homes. Shadow flicker is the repetitive effect produced when turbine blades sweep in front of the sun’s rays. Groups such as the Wisconsin Realtors Association and the Wisconsin Towns Association agreed and recommended rejection of the PSC rules.

The Legislature was prepared to do precisely that until this month, when wind energy developers, alternative energy advocates, and utilities urged lawmakers to reconsider. They argued the Doyle-era rules were strict enough to avoid clashes between landowners and wind farms. They also claimed Wisconsin was rapidly losing ground to other states in building wind projects – a fact that threatened home-grown manufacturers of wind components.

“Until we get the policies corrected in this state, we’re going to see more wind-power jobs leave Wisconsin,” said Jeff Anthony, director of business development for the American Wind Energy Association. “Getting the policies right is extremely important right now.”

Anthony, who spoke at the March 9 Green Energy Summit in Milwaukee, said surrounding states have continued to build major wind farms. Under construction in the region, he said, are 614 megawatts of wind power in Illinois, 470 in Iowa, 348 in Michigan, and 202 in Indiana. That compares to five megawatts under construction in Wisconsin.

The construction surge is due in part to a rush to finish wind projects before federal wind power tax credits expire in December, so 2013 won’t be nearly as robust unless the credits are renewed. Anthony said Wisconsin has already lost several major projects, but it’s not too late to salvage part of the 2012 construction season.

Production of wind turbine components is a manufacturing sector that almost left the United States a decade ago. Today, six in 10 turbine components are made in America – and Wisconsin is home to about 300 suppliers and manufacturers, according to the Wisconsin Wind Works consortium.

Ultimately, the Legislature’s reversal reflected a classic policy showdown: Jobs for Wisconsin workers versus tougher protections for homeowners and farmers. In the end, jobs won.

That need not mean Wisconsin will become one giant wind farm, however. The state isn’t highly ranked as a place with top-tier wind potential, and some of the best wind sites have already been taken. Smaller wind turbines – often built to serve individual businesses – are seen as more likely construction targets in Wisconsin.

It may also be cheaper, in the long run, to import wind power from states that have welcomed major projects. That’s why there are plans to build transmission lines to the west, toward Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, and beyond.

The PSC rules set to take effect will bar wind turbines within 1,250 feet of neighboring residences. Wind advocates say that setback rule should offer ample protection. As part of implementing the rules, the PSC must conduct a survey by October 2014 of peer-reviewed scientific literature examining the health effects of wind energy systems.

For now, however, Wisconsin’s wind power industry is back in business – and the organizers of the Wind Power Happy Hour are, once again, happy. And if the wind industry and the PSC follow the spirit of the new rules, people who may live near future wind projects will be happy, too.

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