Elizabeth Dunbar and Todd Richmond
Madison — State regulators plan to vote Thursday on a Wisconsin utility’s plans to build a massive wind farm in southern Minnesota.
Wisconsin Power & Light Co., a subsidiary of Madison-based Alliant Energy, wants permission to start the first phase of the farm on 32,500 acres just north of Albert Lea in Freeborn County. Plans call for scores of turbines that would generate about 200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 50,000 homes.
According to state estimates, the farm could cost nearly $500 million. Alliant officials say the cost is built into their plans to raise electric and natural gas rates by $91.7 million beginning in 2010. That translates to almost $9 more on a typical residential monthly electric bill and $2.40 more on a typical monthly residential gas bill. The farm would account for about $29.6 million of the total increase.
Alliant officials said the farm would help them meet requirements in Wisconsin law that the state get about 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015. Alliant must produce about 9 percent of its energy from renewable sources within the next six years to comply with individual utility requirements.
“This (is) an opportunity to position ourselves for the future,” Alliant spokesman Steve Schultz said.
WP&L purchased the land from Wind Capital Group LLC, a St. Louis-based developer, in March. The site was attractive because winds on the southern Minnesota prairies are consistently strong, the company said in a statement.
The first phase of the project calls for building about 122 turbines. Each would be 400 feet tall with 130-foot blades. They would be operational by 2011.
Schultz said the site is large enough to one day accommodate enough turbines to generate 400 megawatts, enough to power 100,000 homes. The farm then would be the largest in Minnesota, providing up to $1 million in tax revenue for Freeborn County and about two dozen jobs, according to Alliant.
The three-member Wisconsin Public Service Commission has jurisdiction on the project, even though it would be built in Minnesota, because it would affect WP&L customers’ rates.
Charlie Higley, executive director of the Madison-based advocacy group Citizens’ Utility Board, said the commission has reviewed the project with an eye toward issuing a so-called certificate of authority rather than a certificate of public convenience and necessity, which carries stricter review requirements.
As a result, questions linger about whether the farm is really needed, he said.
“We support renewable energy projects, but given what we believe to be a less-stringent analysis, it’s not clear whether this facility makes sense on a question of need or a question of cost,” Higley said.
Alliant needs approval from Minnesota regulators as well. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to consider the project within the next few months.
Hundreds of Freeborn County landowners support the plan, said Wayne Sorensen, the county’s planning and zoning director.
“A lot of people have been talking about the positive aspects of renewable energy and lowering our dependence on foreign oil,” he said.
Sorensen said a group of about 10 citizens has regularly attended meetings to raise concerns about the health effects of living near a large wind turbine, which can be noisy.
Katie Troe, organizer of Safe Wind in Freeborn County, said Minnesota law allows a turbine to be built 500 feet from a home as long as the noise level is below 50 decibels — about the level of a washing machine — 54 minutes out of every hour.
Troe said she’s asking Minnesota regulators to require noise testing and make the company build the turbines at least 1,500 feet from homes.
“It’s not that we’re totally against wind, it’s that they’re putting it too close to people’s homes,” Troe said.