Developer Pulls Plug on Wisconsin Wind Farm Over Policy Uncertainty

Other wind energy firms are expected to follow in Invenergy's footsteps and move planned projects to states with more favorable wind policies

Wind turbines in Wisconsin
Image: Carol Mitchell

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Wind energy developer Invenergy pulled the plug on a planned wind farm in Wisconsin last week, in the first of what may be a slew of such money-losing exits for the state.

The Chicago-based firm cited the state’s “regulatory uncertainty” in its decision to cancel plans for the 150-megawatt Ledge Wind Energy Center in southern Brown County.

Invenergy said that the abrupt suspension of state wind siting rules and an “unstable climate” — namely Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to establish the nation’s most stringent wind standards — had forced the firm to think twice about building its 100-turbine project in Wisconsin.

Turbines at the firm’s 129-megawatt Forward Wind Energy Center near Lake Michigan, which came online in 2008, will keep spinning.

“We could not justify continuing to make significant financial commitments in maintaining the Ledge project while uncertainty persists regarding relevant project regulations,” Invenergy said in a corporate statement.

The company declined an interview request and did not disclose the total amount of investments for the Ledge wind farm.

Keith Reopelle, senior policy director for Clean Wisconsin, the state’s largest environmental advocacy group, said he expects other wind developers to follow in Invenergy’s footsteps.

He said that about half of the 11 wind farms planned in Wisconsin have yet to obtain land and building permits, whose details would pose major barriers to wind development if more restrictive siting rules are passed.

725 MW, $1.8 Billion Hang in the Balance

Wisconsin currently has 469 megawatts of total installed wind capacity from 10 projects.

Hanging in the balance are 725 megawatts in proposed wind projects and $1.8 billion in new investment, along with 2 million hours of construction jobs, according to figures from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

“[Invenergy] may be the first, but I think it is unlikely that it will be the last,” Reopelle told SolveClimate News.

“We’re not surprised to see Invenergy pulling out, and we won’t be surprised if additional developers pull out of projects.”

The wind siting rules, known as PSC 128, passed with strong bipartisan support in 2009 after two years of information gathering and input from six public hearings. Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission finalized the rules last December.

Under PSC 128, wind turbines would be built at least 1,250 feet from property lines, a distance meant to assuage concerns of noise and decreasing property values while still affording wind developers room to build. Developers would also have to compensate landowners within half a mile of wind farms.

The rules were set to go into effect on March 2 — the day after Republicans on a 10-member joint legislative committee voted along party lines to suspend the standards.

The committee has until April 8 to introduce a bill proposing new wind siting rules. New rules would come back to the legislature for a vote within six months of the bill’s passage.

If the new standards look anything like Gov. Walker’s plan — which proposes a 1,800-foot setback rule and is endorsed by the Wisconsin Realtors Association — no wind projects proposed or under construction could move forward, the industry says.

Instead, projects like Invenergy’s Ledge wind farm will head to states with more inviting wind policies.

Invenergy to Develop ‘Outside Wisconsin’

The firm said it would continue to develop smaller and less risky projects in Wisconsin, but would “increase our development efforts outside Wisconsin, in states that offer more regulatory certainty.”

Reopelle said: “It’s Wisconsin’s loss and our neighbors’ gain.”

RENEW Wisconsin, a clean energy business alliance, said the Invenergy project would have generated $600,000 annually in municipal revenues to Brown County and four townships, plus more than $600,000 per year to host landowners and their neighbors.

Building and installing the project’s 100 turbines would support a payroll of more than $10 million, according to figures provided to RENEW by Boldt Construction, a turbine installer that is not directly involved in the Ledge project.

Tom Boldt, the company’s CEO, told the local media that his firm would also seek wind power projects in other states as prospective development in Wisconsin dries up.

The Ledge project would have been Invenergy’s twenty-third U.S. wind farm and part of the 1,000 megawatts in projects the company has under contract or under construction.

Invenergy ranks among the six largest wind energy companies in the United States, according to AWEA. The firm has wind-generating facilities operating in 14 states plus Canada and Europe, representing a total generation capacity of over 2,200 megawatts.

The firm did not indicate to which states it might move the Ledge wind farm, but Jeff Anthony, AWEA’s business development director, said nearby states such as Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois could attract some of the investments that would otherwise have been spent in Wisconsin.

States with ‘Reasonable Rules’ Will Lure Developers

“By suspending these [siting] rules, wind project development will be diverted to other states that have reasonable rules in place,” Anthony said in a March 1 press release. “These states are clearly open for business. The signal sent today is that Wisconsin is closed for business.”

Reopelle said that narrow siting rules could also hinder Wisconsin’s efforts to reach its renewable portfolio standard.

The 2006 mandate requires utilities to produce 10 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2015.

About 5.2 percent of the state’s overall energy production came from renewable energy in 2009, while an even mix of coal, oil and natural gas made up most of the rest, according to the latest figures from the Wisconsin Office of Energy Independence.

Wind energy accounted for 4.1 percent of the clean energy mix that year, and biomass and ethanol fuel production made up nearly 80 percent.

Further restricting the siting rules is “really problematic for the wind industry, but to some extent, it is problematic for our ability to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels period,” Reopelle said.