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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A win for wind power in Wisconsin

Wisconsin State Journal, May 16, 2009
An eight-hour public hearing last week at the Capitol highlighted a threat to the statewide interest in developing wind power.

The hearing also demonstrated why lawmakers should quell that threat by replacing a hodgepodge of local rules for smaller wind farms with uniform state standards.

At stake is not only a clean, renewable source of energy, but also the state's economic vitality.

Wisconsin is counting on wind power to propel the state 90 percent of the way toward meeting a goal of more than doubling the renewable energy contribution to electric needs over the next six years. Developing wind power, and other forms of renewable energy, can help resolve global warming worries, improve energy security and generate jobs.

But a barrier looms: When developers of smaller wind farms apply to local governments to build turbines on specific sites, they too often find that local officials are cowed into imposing impossible-to-meet requirements, or even moratoriums, after opponents raise alarming concerns, commonly based in misinformation.

As a result, a few people gain veto power over the state's energy policy.

Granted, not every location is suitable for wind farms. Local concerns about public safety and health should be respected, when based on sound science. But local officials confronted by alarmed constituents are not in a good position to evaluate competing arguments.

Meanwhile, larger wind farms face no such array of local Mixmasters. They go to one agency -- the state Public Service Commission. Wind farm plans face a rigorous PSC review process. But at least developers know what they are dealing with from the outset. It's a far better system, both for encouraging wind farm development and protecting public safety and health.

Wisconsin's hostile regulatory environment for smaller wind farms is taking a toll. The state lags far behind neighboring Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois in wind power. Part of the reason is that Wisconsin has less potential for wind power than those states. But testimony at last week's hearing indicated that regulatory hostility is also a factor, driving some wind farms away from Wisconsin to its neighbors.

That conclusion is supported by the fact that Michigan, with a relatively small potential for wind power, has a far higher wind farm growth rate than Wisconsin.

The solution lies in the proposed legislation that was the subject of last week's hearing. The plan calls for lawmakers to grant the PSC authority to establish, with public input, a model set of wind farm standards to guide local governments.

Local governments would be forbidden from exceeding the standards.

Any party would have a right to appeal a local decision to the PSC and then to court.

Wisconsin can protect the health and safety of residents and encourage wind farm development. The proposed wind farm siting reform is the answer.

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