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Wisconsin utilities leave home for wind work

Paul Snyder
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Wisconsin utilities have a track record of building, operating and maintaining their own wind farms, leaving independent producers little reason to build in the state.

But when those same utilities build wind farms in other states, Wisconsin’s economy and construction work force suffer, said Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin.

“There’s quite a lot of construction going on in places like Illinois and Iowa where wind producers can sell their product to utilities,” he said. “But here, the market is controlled by utilities.”

And that keeps independent developers from considering Wisconsin, said Timothy Polz, senior project developer with Chicago-based Midwest Wind Energy.

“If utilities prefer to own the projects, it takes away some of the benefits developers can get from constructing or maintaining the farms while selling the power,” he said.

But more troubling, Vickerman said, is that even though utilities have the power to push new developments, they are building beyond state borders. The only major wind farm under development in Wisconsin is We Energies’ Glacier Hill Wind Farm in Columbia County, which will have about 90 turbines and produce 162 megawatts of electricity.

Wisconsin Power & Light Co., meanwhile, is working on a deal in Minnesota. The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin recently approved a WP&L project to build an estimated $497 million wind farm in Freeborn County, Minn., to generate electricity for Wisconsin customers.

Rob Crain, spokesman for WP&L’s parent company, Alliant Energy, said the utility might one day build wind farms in Wisconsin, but Minnesota has better wind.

“It’s a cost issue,” he said. “If you can build something for the same amount of money and generate more power, that’s the choice to take.”

Crain said Alliant has no plans for new Wisconsin wind farms because the Bent Tree project in Minnesota will satisfy generation needs for now.

Wisconsin Public Service Corp. will finish construction of a 66-turbine Crane Creek Wind Farm in Iowa later this year. WPS spokesman Kerry Spees there are better options outside of Wisconsin, and the utility has no plan for a new wind farm in the state.

“But we do talk with developers all the time,” he said.

Projects in other states, Spees said, come with far less local opposition. Although Wisconsin is trying to establish statewide standards for placement of wind farms, he said the law likely is not enough.

“Receptiveness is one of the things we consider, and projects are wanted by local communities in Iowa,” Spees said. “You can write a law to quiet opposition, but the opposition’s still going to be there.”

The problem, Polz said, is Wisconsin suffers if utilities block independent developers yet continue to build elsewhere.

“I understand, on one hand, about taking advantage of the lowest-cost power,” he said. “But you go out of state, and you miss out on payment to local landowners, the shared revenue these projects can generate for counties and the construction jobs in building the farms.

“That’s something Wisconsin needs to be aware of.”

If utilities do not at least start building more in state, Vickerman said, Wisconsin lawmakers’ efforts to expand renewable energy generation will not amount to much.

“(Glacier Hill) is not expected to come online until mid-2011,” he said. “It would be sad if that’s the only (wind) project we’re looking at until then.”

One comment

  1. You know those occasionally really calm, still days. How much power is generated then? These wind – pusher zealots seem to assume these things are powering out 24/7 and I assure that is definately NOT the case! Even looking through their ‘green-colored glasses’, in 3 to 5 years they typicallly run about 50% of the time. (Do you want to pay $350 per hour to have someone climb 400 feet up, with their tools to maintain and repair them?)
    And By The Way, DO NOT assume that these are the lowest cost power choice. If that’s the case, it’s only because of subsidies and mandates, coupled with penalties on other types of conventional plants. And don’t forget, this government stimulus funding is ‘seed money’ to get them built, and does NOT cover any of the extreme high costs of maintenence, or on-going operations.

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