Developer considers eastern Rock County for 60 wind turbines
TOWN OF JOHNSTOWN—A developer plans to begin testing to learn if the town of Johnstown has the right conditions to support a wind farm that town officials say could fill the horizon with as many as 60 wind turbines.
Town Chairman Dennis Logterman and town Supervisor Robert Mawhinney confirmed that NextEra Energy Resources based in Juno, Fla., has gotten town approval to erect two met towers--one on East Hake Road and one on County MM--on the far east side of the town to monitor and test wind conditions there.
The towers, which will be on private land and be 200 and 300 feet high, will look like tall flagpoles equipped with meteorological and wind-testing equipment. They are designed to determine whether an area provides proper conditions for wind turbines.
The test towers are allowed under town building construction permits and through permission by landowners. They must be removed within five years, Logterman said.
Logterman and Mawhinney say it could take NextEra a year or more of wind testing before the company could file a development proposal for an electricity-generating wind farm with the state Public Service Commission. The group is the regulatory agency that oversees the electric industry in Wisconsin, including the full permitting process for electric generating wind farms.
Mawhinney said a land acquisition representative from the company already has begun talking with landowners about the potential wind farm development, and he said the company has indicated it would like to move forward with the project by 2016.
Mawhinney, who owns land in the town, said NextEra has “approached him as a landowner” about the potential wind farm. Mawhinney said the company hasn't yet shown detailed plans, but he's learned the company has been eying the area around the town for several years for its potential to harness wind energy.
“They have electronic wind data they've been recording throughout the area for several years. They say they already know the wind is here, now they've got to have hard data with these towers,” Mawhinney said.
He said that “depending on what generator size they choose, they're looking to put around 50 to 60 (wind turbine) towers” somewhere in the town.
Mawhinney said he's also learned the turbines—tall, metal windmills with electric generators turned by three long blades—could be as tall as 350 feet.
NextEra is one of the largest wind farm and clean energy developers in the United States. It Dodge County it owns and operates a 36-turbine, 56-megawatt windfarm, Butler Ridge Wind Energy, which it acquired in 2009. In DeKalb and Lee counties in northern Illinois, it operates a 145-turbine, 217-megawatt wind farm.
The company had contacted town of Magnolia officials in 2011 about town ordinances for wind farms there. At the time, Magnolia had rules in place that didn't allow wind farms, and the company told reporters it had no immediate plans to place testing towers.
The Gazette was not able to reach NextEra for comment and for details on where the potential wind farm could be located in the town.
To be viable, wind farms need a combination of available land, existing high voltage power lines and steady wind.
According to fact sheets on NextEra's website, the company pursues wind farms in areas where the wind blows “steadily, consistently and unobstructed.” The ideal average wind speed is 25 to 35 mph, according to the company.
The company's fact sheets say wind farms must be near high-voltage transmission lines capable of additional transmission and carrying power long distances.
Wind farms typically lease land from landowners under a developer's agreement that spells out, among other facets, where and how wind turbines would be located on private land. Sometimes, the developers offer revenue sharing arrangements with local taxing authorities, including school districts.
State siting rules on setbacks for wind farms require wind turbines to be at least 1,400 feet from any residential structure.
Logterman say that would seem to rule out construction along a ridge that runs through the middle and northern parts of the town of Johnstown. Those areas have too many homes, Logterman said. Both Logterman and Mawhinney speculated that land in the town that's flatter and less populated could be areas targeted by the developers.
“Obviously, they need a lot of room. They'd want less housing, bigger open fields. It's like anything else. If it's more flat, it's easier digging. All that would factor into it,” Logterman said.
The town is reviewing language in its town codes, although in Wisconsin municipal and town governments now have little authority over wind farm developments.
“It's pretty much state control. We (the town board) have got very little to say. It gets real legal what the uses are for the stuff (wind farm developments), but from what we understand, it's a legal use of agricultural zoned land,” Mawhinney said.
Under a state statutes established in 2009, local regulatory power over wind farms was effectively overturned. Review oversight and approval process for wind farm developments over 100 megawatts were put under the control of the Public Service Commission.
And in 2012, the Public Service Commission established a new set of regulatory principals that also give the commission oversight over wind farms smaller than 100 megawatts, including small, single wind turbines owned by private residents.
Standard industrial wind turbines generate 1.5 to 2 megawatts of power, according to wind industry estimates.
Those rules lay out baseline terms that govern state regulations on wind farms, including environmental guidelines and studies on impact to flying animals, rules on how the developments must satisfy setbacks, construction, removal and decommissioning and road maintenance agreements—some facets that local governments used to have a degree of control over.
Jenny Heinzen, a curriculum and training coordinator for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, said under current law, neighbors still have a public hearing process when wind farm proposals reach the state, but local governments cannot write or enforce local codes that are more restrictive than state wind-siting laws.
That's similar to siting laws for large dairy farms, which vest much of the government oversight with state regulators.
“(Residents and local governments) simply saying 'we don't want it here' is not reason enough” to get wind farm plans thrown out, Heinzen said.
Heinzen also is a member of the state Wind Siting Council, a six-member ad hoc committee made up of electrical utility representatives, wind farm developers and Wisconsin residents who live next to, but do not lease out land, for wind farms.
The siting council advises the Public Service Commission on policy and worked with the commission to create the commission's 2012 regulatory code, Heinzen said.
The purpose of the new rules, at least from wind farm developers' perspective, was to streamline a “patchwork” of regulations that had made it difficult for wind farm developments to get approved in Wisconsin, Heinzen said.
In Rock County, wind farm plans have never gotten traction.
One proposed development, a 67-turbine wind farm proposed in the town of Magnolia by global energy company Acconia, dissolved in 2010 after tests by the company showed there wasn't enough wind.
The towns of Magnolia, Spring Valley and Union worked to place wind farm moratoriums between 2009 and 2011, although such rules are not enforceable now. Those moratoriums came amid uncertainty over how close wind turbines would be to homes and where developers planned to put them.
Heinzen said she's surprised to hear a developer is considering another wind farm in Wisconsin. While new rules put in place in 2012 create a more uniform regulatory process, the rules are still in flux.
She said the wind-siting panel and state regulators are still reviewing studies on the potential impact of wind farms on property values and on wind turbines' impact on quality of sleep.
“There is still a lot of public input regarding the contents of the rules. The issue has not gone quiet,” Heinzen said.
Logterman said he's unsure whether the town is the right place for a wind farm.
“I'm wondering, are they necessary here, and are they a good fit for the land?” he said. “Do we need to be producing extra energy, or do we have enough? You wonder, are the costs worth it?”
Also, he's concerned about what could happen years from now, if state regulatory practices for wind farms change. He wonders what will happen with old wind turbines no longer in use. Who would be responsible to remove them?
“When they're no longer in use in 30, 50 years, what do you do with them (wind turbines). How do you get out all the concrete they sit in?”