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Wind energy increasing in Wisconsin

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GINA R. HEINE
November 11, 2007

A new crop is sprouting in Wisconsin.


In windy areas of the state, utility and renewable energy companies are planting wind farms that will help the state meet its mandate of producing 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015.


But that’s not the only reason utility companies are attracted to wind energy, said Michael Vickerman, executive director of Renew Wisconsin.


-- With tax credits, wind energy can compete with natural gas or coal generation plants.


“If a utility were to build something new, all three are roughly competitive,” Vickerman said.


-- Wind is the only renewable energy that can be scaled up to the utility size, he said. For example, 2,000 homes each with a solar electrical system would be needed to match one commercial wind turbine, he said.


“We expect wind to account for about 90 percent of all renewable electricity required under the law,” he said.


-- The cost to produce wind energy doesn’t increase over time, Vickerman said.


“Ninety percent of the cost is wrapped up in original generating equipment,” he said.


Wisconsin has 53 megawatts being generated by 55 commercial wind turbines, although several other projects are being planned, permitted and or built.


The state Public Service Commission has approved three projects in the Fox River Valley, and We Energies announced plans last month to build a 100 MW project in central Wisconsin.


“There’s no shortage of projects in the pipeline or development queue,” Vickerman said.


So how are the farms regulated and permitted?


Size matters

Only wind projects of 100 MW or more are permitted through the PSC, which means the 100 MW project proposed for Magnolia Township would need town and state permits while a 4.5 MW project in Union Township would go through the town permitting process.


The PSC looks primarily at environmental issues and creates an environmental impact statement, said Bob Norcross, a gas and energy administrator with the PSC.


Each project is evaluated based on the developer’s application, and the public gets input through hearings.


After the hearings, the commission receives a record of the proceedings and makes a decision on the application: to modify, accept or reject it.


Once the application is submitted, the commission has 180 days to make a decision, but it can also receive a 180-day extension.


Once the application is submitted to the commission, it “pretty much” becomes a PSC project in terms of approval, with involvement from the state Department of Natural Resources and local officials, Norcross said. The PSC can override local ordinances or suggest they be changed if the restrictions aren’t related to health and safety, he said.


EcoEnergy would need local permits through the town of Magnolia, said Wes Slaymaker, vice president of wind development for EcoEnergy.


In past proceedings, town and county officials have brought their concerns to the commission, Norcross said. The PSC considers those concerns and may implement restrictions based on them, he said.


A municipality cannot deny a permit or impose unreasonable standards unless the justification is grounded in the protection of health and safety. For example, not liking the appearance of wind turbines is not justification to deny a permit.


“The PSC and applicant will work to see if we can mitigate some of the issues,” Norcross said. “There’s an effort to try and accommodate as best we can. If you’re putting in 100 mw of wind, it’s hard to make everyone happy.”


Setbacks

One of the most controversial aspects of wind farms can be how close turbines are allowed near homes. A setback of 1,000 feet often is standard.


EcoEnergy’s setbacks are at least 1,150 feet, Slaymaker said. He points to a project they have in the permitting process called EcoDane Wind, which will be six turbines in Springfield Township in Dane County, visible from the state Capitol.


In that project, one turbine is within 1,275 feet of a home, and the others are 1,300 feet or more.


Noise

Most wind ordinances set 50 decibels as the maximum turbine that can be heard from homes or other places people occupy, Slaymaker said. EcoEnergy, however, tries to stay below 45 decibels, he said.


To do that, EcoEnergy uses noise modeling to help determine where a turbine should go. Turbine noise fluctuates based on the distance from the turbine but also the topography. If you’re in a hollow, the sound might be amplified, Slaymaker said.


Sound studies aren’t exact, but the company knows that in most cases noise is below 45 decibels a quarter-mile from a turbine. When the sound approaches 45 decibels, EcoEnergy increases the setback and reruns the model, Slaymaker said.


Forty-five decibels is often compared to a quiet conversation.


Shadows

Three things can prevent a turbine from casting a flickering shadow: a cloudy day, a windless day and the orientation of the turbine to the home, Slaymaker said.


During the siting process, EcoEnergy uses a model to determine the annual maximum hours shadow flicker could be cast on a home.


There are no requirements for the maximum theoretical hours, but EcoEnergy tries to stay below 100 hours annually, Slaymaker said.


In the EcoDane project, the maximum theoretical number turned out to be less than 75 hours, he said. Homes within a half-mile were computed to have shadow flicker from fewer than 10 hours to 20-plus hours, he said.


Because the siting process includes public input, plans can be modified to address serious concerns, he said.


Birds

The DNR and EcoEnergy would study during the permitting process how turbines would affect birds and other wildlife.


A year of preconstruction surveys are completed with a biologist defining any bird routes in the area to avoid flight patterns, Slaymaker said.


A turbine wouldn’t be sited in the area where birds would be migrating, he said.


The PSC has approved a permit that includes turbines near the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area.


Birds seem to avoid wind turbines, Slaymaker said. In the Midwest, biologists have found only one to two birds killed each year per turbine.


When the PSC takes on a project, the important thing is creating as much of a public process as possible to address concerns, Norcross said.


“The developer is interested in that, too,” he said. “(They) want to be a good neighbor.”


PENDING PROPOSALS

Proposals are being developed to install wind turbines in two Rock County townships—Magnolia and Union.


Here is the status of the efforts:


Magnolia Township

EcoEnergy is gathering wind data from a tower that went up last spring near County B and Highway 213 as the first step in constructing up to a 100 megawatt farm, or 67 turbines.


The “EcoMagnolia Wind” proposal includes:


-- Turbines would be 262 feet from the ground to the hub and 397 feet from the ground to the tip of a blade.


-- Each turbine would generate 1.5 megawatts annually.


-- Landowners would be signed up and the permitting process would begin in 2008. Construct would start in 2010.


-- The power would mostly be used within 100 miles.


-- EcoEnergy has committed to providing shared revenue to the county and state.


-- EcoEnergy has committed to permit the project through the state’s Public Service Commission.


In July, board members passed an ordinance to defer applications and stay construction of wind energy systems for six months while they study and draft a permanent ordinance.


The town has been holding wind workshops, with another scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20, at Evansville High School, 640 S. 5th St.


Union Township

EcoEnergy is working on a three-turbine project in Union Township, where Wisconsin Public Power would buy the power for sale to Evansville Water and Light customers.


Project details include:


-- Three of the same type of turbines used in Magnolia


-- Locations near County C around Pleasant Prairie Road west of Evansville


-- Permits obtained as early as 2009, with construction starting later that year


-- All of the generated electricity purchased by Wisconsin Public Power and used by customers in the city of Evansville and Union Township.


-- Three turbines would supply about 16 percent of Evansville’s Water and Light load, according to WPPI.


The Union Township board in August passed a one-year moratorium on construction of wind energy systems. A committee meets to work on an ordinance at 7:30 a.m. every Saturday at the Village Square Family Restaurant, 5 W. Main St., Evansville. The public is welcome.


The committee has decided to use the state wind ordinance model as its template, member Jim Bembinster said. Information gathered so far is on display at the Eager Free Public Library, 39 W. Main St., Evansville.



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