Our Views: Opponents likely can’t stop plans for wind farm

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Saturday, February 1, 2014

If a developer decides to erect 50 or 60 wind turbines in the town of Johnstown in eastern Rock County, residents probably can’t stop it.

As The Gazette reported last Sunday, NextEra Energy Resources of Juno, Fla., has been visiting property owners and gotten approval to install two towers to test wind conditions. The towers will resemble flagpoles but be 300 feet tall. The company needed only to get town building permits and landowner permission.

The town board, however, likely won’t hold sway over whether a wind farm with towers as tall as 350 feet could alter Johnstown’s skyline by 2016.

Turbine lease deals can be lucrative for landowners and bring revenue sharing to local governments and schools. Many residents and those in neighboring towns, however, likely will oppose what they’ll view as monstrosities that would forever change the idyllic, natural landscape. They’ll argue stray voltage, low-frequency noise and flicker shadows will harm health. They’ll point out that turbine blades kill birds.

These complaints, however, likely will prove futile. A developer need only follow state rules. Lawmakers enacted legislation in 2009 that usurped local regulations and put approval in the hands of the state’s Public Service Commission. The commission would offer public hearings. But if NextEra follows setbacks that include keeping turbines at least 1,400 feet from homes and meets state siting rules regarding construction, decommissioning and road maintenance, it’s all but good to go.

This proposal comes a few years after a company called Acciona explored putting turbines in the towns of Magnolia and Union in northwestern Rock County. Opposition was strong, and the town boards scrambled to enact moratoriums on turbines. Such local rules would be moot today. But as The Gazette reported in 2010, the company announced it was pulling plans for Magnolia because winds were inadequate. A spokesman said Acciona would “continue to watch” data from a test tower in Union.

Acciona bought the testing rights from another company that disclosed wind speeds in Magnolia averaged less than 15 mph. NextEra is one of the nation’s largest developers of wind farms, and its website suggests ideal winds should average between 25 and 35 mph. Presumably, by investing in test towers, NextEra senses that Johnstown’s wind is worth exploring.

Still, Wisconsin winds often are conducive to turning turbines perhaps just 25 percent of the time. Winds often are calm in August, when air-conditioners hum and electricity use spikes.

Federal aid for green technology has mushroomed under President Obama. Companies have gobbled up close to $150 billion. It’s doubtful that, without such incentives, NextEra would be looking at Johnstown.

Opponents might point to St. Croix County, where the town of Forest is suing to block a wind farm. In that case, however, the Public Service Commission at first rejected the plan over noise concerns. That apparently opened the door for the lawsuit. It’s uncertain whether that suit will succeed. Opponents here can’t expect a similar issue to block NextEra.

Sure, you would like to see green energy trim our dependence on dirty fossil fuels. But if you think local control is best for siting wind farms, blame state lawmakers. And if you think the free market should sort out the most economically viable energy sources, blame Obama.

Absent change out of Madison or Washington, turbines may someday soon pock Johnstown’s skyline.

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