As Obama Extols Wisc. Cleantech, Fears of Governor’s Anti-Wind Policies Grow

Pres. Obama unwittingly visits a wind plant that could go under if Gov. Walker's policy rollback occurs. Solar, however, is being left to flourish for now

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President Obama’s recent visit to a Wisconsin town to trumpet its cleantech success has inadvertently shone a spotlight on the state’s new governor and his plans to reverse a law that advocates say is needed for the wind industry to stay afloat.

Manitowoc, about 80 miles north of Milwaukee and on Lake Michigan, is home to two major renewables firms: Orion Energy Systems, which makes high-efficiency lighting and solar products, and Tower Tech Systems, a manufacturer of towers for utility-scale wind turbines.

Obama toured the one-time shipbuilding city of about 34,000 people following his Jan. 25 State of the Union address as an example of success in his efforts to foster investments in clean energy projects.

At the Orion plant, the president lauded the state’s $850,000 tax credit plan, signed by former Democratic governor, Jim Doyle. The policy helped the solar products maker create 170 jobs and retain 115 positions by expanding its manufacturing capacity and building a new headquarters.

“We need to get behind clean energy companies like Orion. We need to get behind innovation,” Obama told some 200 workers at the plant. “This plant and company have been supported by tax credits…to help give a leg up to renewable energy companies.”

The president also praised the 250 manufacturing jobs at the Tower Tech plant — jobs he said will help slash the nation’s energy bills, make the planet safer and keep America competitive by growing its renewable energy industry.

But now — in light of a bill by newly elected Gov. Scott Walker, a Tea Party-backed Republican — wind industry officials say that Obama’s stop at Tower Tech was unwittingly ironic.

Wind Investors Urged to ‘Escape to Illinois’

The Wind Siting Reform bill would mandate turbines go up at least 1,800 feet from property lines, the strongest regulation in the country. The restrictions would prohibit any future wind projects from being built and threaten the same jobs that Obama heralded just weeks ago, the industry says.

While the state legislature agreed last week that it would not take up the bill during the current special legislative session, Walker has pledged to continue to fight for tougher regulations, according to news reports.

The governor’s goal is to somehow reverse legislation that went into effect on Jan. 1, after heated controversy last year. Initial efforts led by the Wisconsin Realtors Association, which argues that turbines decrease property values, sought to further restrict the turbines’ proximity to people. After lengthy proceedings, the legislature ultimately established a 1,250-foot setback requirement, or 3.1 times the total height of the wind turbine.

The American Wind Energy Association issued an “action alert” urging its members to lobby against the wind provision of the governor’s special session, which he called in order to focus on employment — he’s vowed to create 250,000 new private sector jobs — and economic development.

Jeff Anthony, AWEA’s director of business development, said in the alert that no wind project being proposed or under construction could move forward under the bill, resulting in the loss of more than 700 megawatts in Wisconsin’s wind energy capacity and $1.8 billion in investment from projects already planned, plus a loss of 2 million job hours in aggregate employment impacts.

He said that many of Wisconsin’s 2,000 to 3,000 jobs in the wind energy industry would leave the state “as developers look for other locations outside of Wisconsin without onerous requirements.”

Neighboring wind developers are already calling for investors to “Escape to Illinois,” where setback requirements on landowner’s property are as low as 1.1 times the height of the turbine. Illinois boasts 2,000 megawatts in installed wind capacity, while Wisconsin has nearly 500 megawatts from ten projects currently online. 

Ed Blume of RENEW Wisconsin, a clean energy business alliance, told SolveClimate News that the entire wind supply chain — not just wind farms — would be held back by the siting rule.

“One of the ironies is that when President Obama was here, he toured exactly one of those plants” that would be affected, he said.

Tower Tech won its bid to build towers for 41 turbines at the nearby Cedar Ridge Wind Energy Center because of its in-state proximity to the 68-megawatts project, which is under construction. Without the wind farms, Blume said, many such manufacturers will lose their client base.

Scott Thompson, a clean energy associate at Wisconsin Environment, said: “It is important that we embrace an across-the-board renewable energy approach where we have a lot of opportunities with wind and solar to tackle climate change, create jobs and expand the new green economy.”

“But we’re not going to do that by limiting a newly growing industry,” he said.

Despite the dilemma facing Wisconsin’s wind development, however, solar energy is on the rise, Thompson said, and there are few concerns that it will change.

Doyle’s Solar Policies Lure W Solar Group

California-based W Solar Group, Inc., which makes semiconductors for thin-film solar cells, is geared to bring 600 more solar jobs to the state this year. The company will receive $28 million in tax credits for job creation, capital investment and supply chain development when it relocates its headquarters and builds a manufacturing plant and R&D facility near the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus.

Former governor Jim Doyle championed the deal at the end of his term last year, arranging the tax incentives through the state Department of Commerce’s Enterprise Development Zone program that brings business development to areas with high unemployment rates, plant layoffs or declining property values.

“Incentives are important when you’re trying to help a relatively new industry get going,” said Tony Hozeny of the commerce department, suggesting there are no plans yet by Walker to reverse the solar benefits.

Evan Zeppos, a spokesperson for W Solar, said it wasn’t just the tax credits that lured the young solar company to Wisconsin. A strong supply chain of solar materials and manufacturing, a qualified green-collar workforce, steady public-private partnerships, plus solid transportation infrastructure, also helped to seal its decision.

“In 2010, we looked at opportunities to grow the company and make technological advances,” he said. “Wisconsin, when you put all the pieces together, really jumped out as an ideal location for this type of operation.”

Doyle, who took office in 2003, is credited with growing Wisconsin’s nascent solar energy industry by pushing an aggressive green economy agenda. The state counts 6.5 megawatts in installed solar capacity and 3,000 solar industry jobs, the fifth-highest solar employment in the nation, according to the National Solar Jobs Census report.

The state’s Focus on Energy program, which is paid for by utilities to bolster otherwise underfunded renewable energy projects, has added about 5,000 jobs and more than $1 billion to Wisconsin’s economy since its start in 2001, Doyle announced last year.

The energy program, Thompson said, is “one of the reasons that you see Wisconsin in the lead for solar.”

Wisconsin’s solar industry is “an example of creating green jobs in the recession and helping us fight climate change,” he said.

Image: Orion Energy Systems