Buried in a regulatory reform bill proposed by Gov. Scott Walker earlier this week lies a provision that wind energy insiders say could shut down 12 wind farm projects, cost investors billions and essentially kill the industry in the state.
In the bill announced Tuesday, Walker seeks to quadruple the distance between wind turbines and neighboring property.
The governor said the provision was written to protect homeowners, many of whom have complained about the encroachment of wind turbines in the rural parts of the state. Opponents of wind farms have complained of diminished property values, occasional noise pollution, moving shadows cast by the giant machines and loss of sleep from vibrations.
But critics this week called the provision a job killer and said it would earn Wisconsin a reputation for being hostile to alternative energy sources, such as wind.
"It would in essence shut down wind energy in the state," said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association. "It is one of the most onerous regulations we have seen."
Bode said that, if passed, the measure would shut down 12 wind farm projects worth about $1.8 billion. Those projects, which are in various stages of planning, could produce about 950 full-time jobs for one year, she said.
"This is a shock to those of us in the wind industry," Bode said. "This will cause projects to go to other states."
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie would not comment on specific criticisms of the bill, instead reiterating what has become the new Republican governor's mantra. "Governor Walker is focused on ensuring Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 jobs across all economic sectors," he said.
The proposal was met with applause from wind farm critics, like Elizabeth Ebertz. Ebertz, 67, lives in a little valley about a half-mile from a dozen 400-foot-tall wind turbines. The structures are part of the Blue Sky Green Field Wind Energy Center in northeastern Fond du Lac County, one of the state's largest wind farms, capable of producing energy for about 36,000 homes.
But according to Ebert, the turbines also produce enough noise to chase her from the garden - and, on most nights, disturb her sleep.
"I think it's a terrific idea, and long overdue," she said. "I have a lot of them now and I'd like to get rid of them."
Bode said the wind industry employs about 3,000 people in Wisconsin. The state spends about $1.5 billion on imported energy every year and ranks 16th in the country in available wind.
According to the AWEA, Wisconsin has the capacity to produce up to 449 megawatts of energy from its existing wind farms - enough to power about 110,000 homes. Yet it trails other Midwestern states in wind energy production. Minnesota wind farms produce 1,797 megawatts, Illinois produces 1,848 and Iowa generates 3,670.
Industry insiders hoped new rules approved by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle would end years of localized fights - often spurred by well-funded anti-wind organizations - that killed at least 10 proposed wind farms in the past eight years and scared off several others.
Supporters hoped the new rules would help the state reach its goal of generating 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015. Renewable sources account for 5 percent of the state's energy now.
But Walker's proposal has many wondering what the future holds for the industry. Currently the state requires turbines have a setback from the nearest property line of 1.1 times the height of the turbine, or roughly 450 feet. The turbines are also required to have a setback of 1,250 feet from a home.
Walker's provision would push the setback from the property line to 1,800 feet (almost six football fields), a distance that industry experts say is unheard of in other states.
"It's a death sentence," said Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a Madison nonprofit that promotes clean energy. "This has everything to do with eliminating wind power. That's why the proposal is so high. It's a hit job."
Taking their business elsewhere
Vickerman said the new rules, if approved, would essentially end the industry's growth here. His sentiment is shared by many in the wind industry.
"This regulation goes far beyond what any other state has done," said Tim Polz, vice president of Midwest Wind Energy, a company currently planning a large wind farm in Calumet County. "This will kill our project."
The Chicago-based Midwest has developed seven wind farms in total and has 12 more in the planning stages. The company already built two wind farms in Wisconsin: the 36-turbine Butler Ridge Wind Energy Project in Dodge County and the 41-turbine Cedar Ridge Wind Farm in Fond du Lac County.
Polz said Midwest has already spent three years and about $1 million on the Calumet County project, which would employ between 150 and 200 construction workers for up to 18 months if it moved forward.
"This sends the message to us that Wisconsin does not want our business," he said.
Dean Baumgardner, executive vice president for the St. Louis-based Wind Capital Group, said Walker's proposal was disappointing, especially considering the governor's vow to create jobs.
Wind Capital, which has an office in Madison, has developed six farms and has 20 more in the planning stages - including a 40- to 60-turbine farm in Grant County. Baumgardner said Walker's proposal will likely kill the Grant County farm.
"But we will keep building wind farms," he said. "We will just do it elsewhere."