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Wind farm development stalls in state

Paul Snyder
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A Wisconsin law designed to make it easier to develop small wind farms is freezing the market as local governments block plans until the state offers specific guidelines.

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin wants to work quickly to draft the wind farm placement rules, said PSC spokeswoman Kailey Bender, but there is no deadline.

And as the state develops its standards, wind farm developers are looking beyond Wisconsin.

“We are very anxious to see the PSC review the issues and come up with guidelines, and we have a lot of hope for wind farm development in Wisconsin,” said Tom Green, senior project development manager of St. Louis-based Wind Capital Group LLC. “But we’re also making the calculation on a daily basis if it’s more advantageous to do projects in about a dozen other states.”

The law, signed by Gov. Jim Doyle last week, requires the PSC create turbine-placement rules for wind farms that would generate less than 100 megawatts of electricity. The law also prevents local governments from passing ordinances more restrictive than the rules the PSC creates, and suspends local governments from passing ordinances between the governor’s signing of the law and the state’s approval of the new rules.

At least 10 local governments passed wind farm ordinances in the past two years, according to Better Plan Wisconsin, an independent community group that studies renewable energy projects.

But a state district court’s ruling this summer that Calumet County’s ordinance was unduly restrictive prompted the county to pass a moratorium on wind farm development. County leaders reasoned that if they had to draft a new ordinance, they first had to wait for the state’s rules.

Now some towns, including Union, Magnolia and Smelser are moving toward passing moratoriums, and more could follow, said Matt Dregne, a partner with the Madison-based firm Stafford Rosenbaum LLP.

“I’m not sure what options will be there for towns once the state rules are passed,” he said. “The only thing (towns) can do right now is to manage the process.”

State rules ultimately will prohibit local moratoriums on wind farm development as too restrictive, Dregne said, but local governments will use the bans as they await guidance to draft new ordinances.

And if a court ruled one ordinance is too strict, others could fall, said Magnolia Supervisor Dave Olsen. Even though no developers are shopping wind projects in Magnolia, Olsen said, moratoriums may be the only option for towns that want to review projects. The Magnolia Town Board likely will pass its moratorium next week.

“We just want to protect our citizens until the state has its rules,” Olsen said. “It’s strange for them to pass a law without rules.”

The new law’s author, state Sen. Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee, called the law a “first step,” and said there will be time for more debate when the PSC begins drafting the rules.

But with no deadline, developers may look elsewhere. Wind Capital Group is seeking projects in 15 other states, and Green said even though the company has no plans to give up on Wisconsin, it cannot wait indefinitely on projects proposed in Grant and Columbia counties.

“Obviously, we would like the new rules to be put together as expeditiously as possible,” he said. “I can’t say what the breaking point is or if there is a day when the rules have to be done, because we do daily projections.

“But I think people in this state are very aware that Wisconsin is losing a lot of business to other states in the meantime.”

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