Permit In Hand, Wind Developer Finds State Tough Sledding

Mark Del Franco, Tuesday 12 November 2013 - 14:37:43



Emerging Energies of Wisconsin (EEW) recently became the first wind developer in Wisconsin to receive a permit since the state enacted strict siting standards in 2009.

On Oct. 25, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) granted EEW a certificate of public convenience and necessity to allow the construction of the 102.5 MW Highland Wind Farm. The $250 million project will consist of 41 turbines located on 26,550 acres in St. Croix County.

Bill Rakocy, co-founder of Madison, Wisc.-based EEW, notes that details relating to wind farm construction are currently being finalized to ensure the project qualifies for the production tax credit.

Although EEW’s Highland Wind Farm may be in the advanced stages of development, the Wisconsin market, overall, has slowed to a standstill. Many blame the paucity of development on Wisconsin Act 40, a controversial state law passed in 2009 that established a uniform set of permitting standards for wind projects. Among the more burdensome requirements, the law increased wind turbine setback distances from residences to 1,250 feet (from 1,000 feet).

The requirements forced many developers planning projects in densely populated areas to cancel them, explains Rakocy.

The act also required potential wind projects to adhere to stringent noise standards. In fact, the PSC originally denied EEW's Highland project in February because of noise concerns. Although the developer believed its project would operate within the range of acceptable sound levels, it needed to prove it clearly, notes Rakocy.

Armed with testimony from acoustical experts and geographic information system maps, the developer was able to provide a better understanding of the project's full impact to the three-member PSC, which agreed to approve the wind project.

"The fact that EEW persevered in spite of a hostile wind climate is significant," explains Michael Vickerman, program and policy director at ReNew Wisconsin, a state advocacy group.

To get permitted in Wisconsin, Vickerman explains, a wind developer basically has two choices. Either build a large wind farm and go through the PSC for approval, or find a town that is amenable to hosting the project. But finding a city or town in Wisconsin that would agree to do so is easier said than done. Difficult, he says, but not impossible.

"The developer would have to be willing to spread the wealth," explains Vickerman, adding that extending land-lease payments to non-participating residents would almost certainly have to be part of the equation.

The larger issue
Anti-wind sentiment is not the only hurdle in Wisconsin; current market conditions are also making it difficult for EEW to find an off-taker.

"It's not a very promising market for an independent power producer," explains Vickerman, adding that Wisconsin utilities are at or near compliance with the state's 10% by 2015 renewable portfolio standard. Further complicating matters is the fact that electricity rates have not increased to the point where utilities are considering wind energy.

For his part, Rakocy is hopeful that the company can secure a power purchase agreement.

"We hear of states with lower energy costs than [Wisconsin] because of their having been more aggressive with wind power, and would hope to see that benefit for ourselves and our fellow ratepayers," he says.

Given the lower costs of natural gas, Rakocy can see how utilities can be enticed by the resource. However, he says, many entities are not yet factoring in carbon and environmental concerns, which could result in higher prices in the future.

"Wind is the most practical choice we can build in Wisconsin today," Rakocy explains, noting wind energy's carbon offset, branding and cost-hedging benefits.




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