In the past six months, three wind farm developers with a combined investment of more than $600 million have stopped operations in Wisconsin — victims of regulatory uncertainty and what some now perceive as a hostile business environment for “green” energy.
The wind farms — planned for Calumet, Brown and Green Lake counties — would have created more than 1,100 jobs and helped Wisconsin reach its goal of generating 10 percent of its energy through renewable sources by 2015.
But new wind regulations, more than two years in the making, were shelved as the Public Service Commission works on a more restrictive set. Combined with a series of initiatives pushed through by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led Legislature, industry officials and environmental advocates say Wisconsin seems more concerned with making green than being green.
“In a typical year, you win some and you lose some. It’s about a 50-50 breakdown,” said Jennifer Giegerich, legislative director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “But this year, it has been one loss after another. We are going backwards, fast. And it’s scary.”
One day after Walker was elected governor, lame-duck predecessor Gov. Jim Doyle halted progress on a planned $810 million federally funded Madison-to-Milwaukee passenger rail project.
The governor-elect made no secret of his desire to kill the proposal. After his election, little stood in the way.
Since January, Walker and the GOP have proposed more than a dozen pieces of legislation that some say roll back or weaken environmental laws.
They exempted a parcel of land in Brown County from wetland protections, weakened the state’s clean water rules, cut state funding for recycling by 40 percent, ended the office of energy independence, and got rid of loan and grant programs that encourage companies to become energy efficient.
Several proposals still are in play, including bills that change where utilities can buy renewable energy and how long renewable energy credits last. Advocates say both measures would severely damage the health of clean energy companies in the state.
“They are trying to take us backwards environmentally 20 or 30 years,” said state Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, who worked for the Sierra Club for years. “It’s this corporate mindset. It has taken over.”
But for every bill that environmental advocates see as bad, others see as valuable and necessary.
Ask Walker why he killed the train and he will tell you it was because the project was a boondoggle and the state’s efforts were better focused on roads and bridges.
Ask him why he weakened clean water rules and he says it was to provide relief to local governments from statewide mandates.
Ask him why he fought to stop the new wind siting rules and he says he was protecting the property rights of people who live near wind turbines.
“Business and environment can go hand-in-hand,” Walker said. “In the past, some pushed radical policies at the expense of jobs. I believe we can both conserve natural resources and promote economic prosperity.”
There have been some bipartisan victories for the environmental movement. An attempt to rush through a controversial bill to speed up reviews of permit applications for mining died after questions were raised by members of both parties. A proposal to pare phosphorus rules also was dropped for lack of support. And originally, Walker planned to cut all funding for the state’s recycling program as well as end the mandate enforcing it.
State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, led the fight to restore most of the money and the mandate.
The co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee said he fought for the program because it’s better to invest in recycling now than to pay for more landfills later.
“But we have limited resources,” he said. “And we are always trying to find that right balance between what is achievable and what is just a lofty goal.”
Probably the oddest aspect of the business-vs.-environment debate is the role of wind energy. One might assume a fast-growing “clean energy” industry such as wind would appeal equally to both sides. But so far, that has not been the case.
The argument over wind power has divided entire communities in the state’s rural areas.
Opponents complain of diminished property values, noise, moving shadows cast by the giant turbines and loss of sleep from the vibrations.
Advocates say most of those problems are unfounded and the rest are overblown. They argue wind energy is good policy and good business for the state.
Industry insiders hoped the new rules would end years of localized fights that killed at least 10 proposed wind farms in the past eight years and scared off several others.
But earlier this year, the governor introduced a plan to quadruple the required distance between wind turbines and neighboring property.
Though the governor’s proposal was not taken up, a legislative committee suspended the new rules and asked for major revisions.
“I had concerns about the rights of property owners from the get-go,” said state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, committee co-chairwoman. “In the end, we felt it was better to send the rules back until a balance between the wind industry and landowners could be worked out.”
Currently the Public Service Commission is holding meetings with advocates and opponents, trying to iron out a compromise. Neither side wants to start from scratch, but PSC officials said they are at a standstill.
“The uncertainty is killing us,” said Dan Rustowicz, of Minnesota’s Redwind Consulting, a company trying to develop a wind farm in Buffalo County. “It’s a shame because Wisconsin has good wind. But we have other options. If you don’t have the political support here, why try and push that rope?”