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Wind farm bill targets minor projects

Paul Snyder
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The construction industry, wind farm specialists say, should not expect a bonanza of jobs if a bill giving the state control of such projects makes it out of the state Capitol.

“It’s all about the duration of those smaller jobs,” said Michael Donahue, executive vice president of Chicago-based Midwest Wind Energy. “The fact is you need a lot of people on site because you need the excavators, laborers, electricians, road crews and so forth. But the number of turbines you’re putting in is going to tell you how long you’ll be out there.”

The Wisconsin Senate and Assembly this week passed bills that would direct the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin to create statewide standards for turbine placement, no matter how big or small the project. Gov. Jim Doyle is expected to sign the final bill.

But the state already can approve or deny projects that would generate more than 100 megawatts of electricity. The proposal opens the door to more wind farms, but it does so mainly for smaller projects.

“And I’d say for a hundred-megawatt project, you’re looking at maybe 12 to 15 full-time maintenance jobs,” said Jim Naleid, managing director of AgWind Energy Partners LLC. “The real economic benefit is going to go to landowners and local governments.”

But Terry McGowan, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, said builder groups need to fight for any job they can get right now. He said IUOE Local 139 has 400 members out of work, and there will be plenty of work for builders as long as wind farms continue to be built.

“I had a number of guys that were gainfully employed at the Fond du Lac project,” McGowan said. “That was long, hard, steady work.”

Still, the 88 turbines that make up We Energies’ Blue Sky Green Field project in Fond du Lac generate 145 megawatts, meaning the bill heading toward Doyle would have had no effect on the project.

But Joe Oswald, government and community affairs director for the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council, said however temporary the work may be, it’s better than no work at all.

“In the construction industry, everybody survives on small jobs,” he said. “It’s the remodeling jobs that keep people going because you’re not always going to get the big projects.”

McGowan agreed. Anything to get wind farm projects past local opposition would give the industry a boost, he said.

“Power producing jobs have recently been nothing but a letdown,” McGowan said. “You saw what happened in Cassville, and now there are all these deforestation arguments coming up on the biomass plant proposals.”

Wind is going to advance, Naleid said. AgWind was the company that proposed an estimated 100-megawatt wind farm in Trempealeau County that led to a restrictive ordinance and helped spark the statewide standards bill. Although AgWind is done in Trempealeau, the company is moving on a 150-megawatt project in Buffalo County.

Naleid said smaller proposals likely will become more frequent, and so will jobs. But wind farms, he said, will by no means be the silver bullet for construction’s unemployment.

“It’s not like there’s going to be hundreds of jobs here,” he said. “The work will be temporary, and Wisconsin still has to deal with a limited wind resource.”

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