A lawsuit over Wisconsin’s approval of a Minnesota wind farm threatens to delay the construction start and drive up the project cost.
“At this point, we anticipate construction will begin this spring, so we hope the case plays out in a timely manner,” said Steven Schultz, spokesman for Alliant Energy, the utility developing the estimated $500 million Bent Tree Wind Farm in Freeborn County, Minn. “But if it isn’t settled, we’ll have to take a closer look then. It would have the potential to delay construction.”
Schultz said the length of the case will determine if there are additional project costs and how much they might be. As of Wednesday, no hearing date was set in Dane County Circuit Court.
The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, which approved the project, is unlikely to settle with Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group and the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin, said Steven Heinzen, an attorney in the Madison office of Godfrey & Kahn SC representing WIEG and CUB. The groups sued the PSC because of the way in which the commission approved the project.
“There’s no likelihood of resolution short of a circuit court decision,” Heinzen said. “Normally, these matters generally move reasonably quickly, and I’m hopeful it could be resolved within about six months.”
WIEG and CUB sued the PSC last year for approving Bent Tree with a certificate of authority instead of a certificate of convenience and necessity. A certificate of convenience and necessity requires an in-depth analysis by commissioners, including reviews of environmental effects and cost for power plant projects.
The state typically grants certificates of authority to projects generating less than 100 megawatts of power and requiring such basic approvals as land-use permits.
The Bent Tree Wind Farm is expected to generate 200 megawatts. Even though the project will be built in Minnesota, the PSC had to sign off on Bent Tree because Alliant plans to use the electricity for the utility’s Wisconsin territory.
During the approval process, PSC commissioners debated which certificate applied and decided against the more detailed review with environmental assessments because the project would be built in Minnesota.
Charlie Higley, CUB’s executive director, said the state must apply in-state review standards to power plants outside of the state if those plants will send electricity into Wisconsin.
“We have no specific concerns with Bent Tree,” he said. “We like wind power, and it’s unfortunate that this has to be challenged. But we have to make sure these projects are reasonable for ratepayers, and we want proper review.”
The PSC last week rejected an out-of-court settlement proposal from WIEG and CUB. Heinzen said it generally would have required the PSC use the more stringent certificate of convenience and necessity for out-of-state projects generating more than 100 megawatts of electricity.
PSC spokeswoman Teresa Weidemann-Smith said settlement negotiations are over. Even without a judge’s ruling this spring, Alliant has the Wisconsin and Minnesota permits to begin construction.
“If it proceeds, and it’s later found out that they don’t have the right permit to build it, then, yeah, we could challenge the project,” Higley said. “I suppose their counterargument would be the delay in getting the permit would cause the project to get more expensive. But that’s not the fault of the ratepayer. It’s the fault of management.”
Schultz would not say if Alliant will begin construction before a legal ruling.
“We’re just hoping,” he said, “to start in spring.”