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Wind farm lawsuit challenges approval standards

Paul Snyder
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Alternative power proponents suing Wisconsin over its approval of a wind farm argue the state cannot step on the law in the race to reach renewable energy goals.

“It’s unfortunate that a wind project got caught up in this, and we are worried the lawsuit could either stop it or delay it and cause the price tag to go up,” said Charlie Higley, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin. “But this is a case where you have to stand up for principle and what state law says.”

Higley’s group, along with the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, is suing the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin over its approval in July of the Bent Tree Wind Farm project in Freeborn County, Minn.

According to the lawsuit, the PSC violated state law by granting the project a certificate of authority instead of a certificate of convenience and necessity, which forces a closer examination of the project.

Although the PSC last year debated which certificate to grant the project, commissioners argued because the project would be built in Minnesota, a more detailed review with environmental assessments was unnecessary.

But Todd Stuart, WIEG’s executive director, said state law requires a certificate of convenience and necessity for any project generating more than 100 megawatts of electricity. The Bent Tree project is expected to generate 200 megawatts for customers of Wisconsin Power & Light Co. in southwestern Wisconsin.

According to a written statement issued by the PSC on Monday, the commission disagrees with the allegations and looks forward to defending itself in circuit court.

The lawsuit calls attention to a major oversight, Stuart said, but it also might be the start of a larger review of how the state approves renewable energy projects. The state and several utilities are committed to a goal of generating 10 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

“I’d say we’d argue that renewable energy projects in this state are already held to lower standards for approval,” Stuart said. “I think the danger of our renewable standards is that cost and need end up ignored because a statute says utilities need so much power in their portfolio to be renewable by 2015.”

With work on the Weston 4 and Oak Creek Power Plants done or near completion, Stuart said, there only is a small need for additional power. Furthermore, he said, the growth in regional collaboration on wind farms and transmission lines should prompt a review of how Wisconsin approves projects in neighboring states.

But state Rep. James Soletski, D-Green Bay, said he does not think the Bent Tree project warrants further Wisconsin review. The PSC, he said, made the right choice.

“I think the PSC would not have a problem granting the (certificate of convenience and necessity),” he said. “I just think they decided on a more timely option.”

The lawsuit could disrupt that timing however. Rob Crain, spokesman for WP&L’s parent company, Alliant Energy, said the project is slated to be online by 2011, but the lawsuit could cause delays and cost increases.

“We expect a decision from the Minnesota (Public Utilities Commission) by the third quarter of this year,” he said. “So hopefully, there’s not too much of a delay in Wisconsin.”

Stuart said state law needs to be followed if Wisconsin customers are involved. He said this will be even more important as the renewable energy market expands.

“If you mandate power, it will be built,” he said, “even if it’s out of state.”

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