December 14, 2011

Turbine jobs are gone with the wind

For a state that’s made “Open for Business” its official mantra, Wisconsin sure seems lukewarm about jobs in the highly competitive — and lucrative — field of wind energy.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature have proposed stricter state rules regarding the siting of wind turbines, prompting several state wind farm projects to be cancelled or put on hold. Renew Wisconsin, a nonprofit group that advocates for sustainable energy, estimates this has cost the state up to 1,000 jobs and at least $1.2 billion in new investment.

“Wind energy creates jobs, and Wisconsin needs jobs,” says Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. He notes that Wisconsin officially lost 9,700 jobs in October, more than any other state. “Yet Republicans continue to push an agenda that sends our jobs out of state.”

Critics say the noise and flickering shadows from wind farms may cause harmful health effects, like headaches and insomnia, to nearby residents. Restrictions on the siting of turbines are backed by the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

Tom Larson of the Realtors Association says his group doesn’t have any reason to dispute the job and investment-dollar estimates given for stalled projects. Its sole concern is the impact on property owners.

“We’re supportive of wind energy,” Larson says. “Just don’t put (turbines) too close to existing homes.”

Real estate interests have given more than $480,000 to Walker since Jan. 1, 2009, according to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The Realtors Association endorsed Walker for governor, gave $54,000 in political action committee contributions to his campaign, and has funded issue-ad groups that will likely back Walker in the recall effort against him.

In a campaign letter last year, Walker called wind power “an expensive, inefficient source of electricity and thus any further construction of wind turbines simply is not a policy goal or objective that should be pursued further.”

Soon after taking office in January, Walker introduced a bill that would have required new wind turbines to be at least 1,800 feet — about a third of a mile — from the nearest property boundary. This was about four times the property-boundary setback proposed by the state Public Service Commission (PSC).

An analysis by MapLight, a nonpartisan watchdog that tracks the link between money and politics, shows that groups registered with the state in support of this bill, led by the Realtors, have given a total of $217,025 to current members of the state Legislature, going back to 1993. That compares to $63,022 given to current lawmakers during this time from groups registered in opposition.

The bill never passed, but legislative Republicans suspended implementation of the PSC’s rules, drafted after more than a year-long process and set to take effect last March. That suspension will expire in March 2012, but lawmakers have introduced a bill to restart the process.

Another GOP-backed bill would halt construction of new wind energy projects until a health-effect study is done and new standards are enacted. “It would pretty much put a padlock on all commercial wind development in Wisconsin,” says Michael Vickerman, executive director of Renew Wisconsin.

Wind Capital Group, a St. Louis-based wind farm developer with an office in Madison, has suspended two wind farm projects in Wisconsin due to uncertainty over the state’s rules, says Dean Baumgardner, the firm’s executive vice president.

“We are passing up on probably half a billion dollars of new investment in Wisconsin because of what the governor did,” Baumgardner says.

Mark Hutter, vice president of business development and marketing at Michels Corp. in Brownsville, Wis., said his firm would like the chance to bid on stalled projects in Wisconsin. Meantime, it’s helping build turbines in North Dakota, Iowa, California and Alaska.

“We would rather be constructing those projects 20 miles from our headquarters than hundreds or thousands of miles away,” Hutter says.

But for now, wind-power money and jobs will keep blowing to other states.

3 thoughts on “Turbine jobs are gone with the wind

  1. Bill, woulda been interesting if you’d pursued your statement that wind energy is “lucrative.” You never substantiate that assertion. I suspect it might be true only because of the spate of federal stimulus funds. Because I don’t see private industry clambering for wind power. Even T-bone Pickens abandoned his wind mega-farm because grid-builders refused to build lines out to the gusty-dusty prairies where wind grows. So, folks don’t want the towering behemoths close to their homes. And gridmeisters won’t help bring the wind to market from the middle of nowhere. How on earth could it be “lucrative” if not for govt subsidies?

    IT was a good piece in its present form, though, I enjoyed reading it. Thanks.

  2. timbo,

    By logical extension I’m assuming that you think the oil companies’ huge subsidies (despite record profits and record polluting of the environment) should be done away with too. I suspect that the near term eventual shutdown of the now old nuclear plants and disposal of the waste in granite formations in northern Wisconsin with the newly liberalized mining regulations on the books or further disregard of Federal environmental regulations is something WI citizens should look more favorably upon.

    Corn ethanol didn’t need any subsidies either, as it was so competitive with other energy options. That agricultural shift, more round-up and gm corn and polluted ground water and skyrocketing food prices world-wide and had no detrimental effects to society compared to the towering behemoth wind-turbines. The mass extraction of dirty carbon in the tar sand fiasco, pipelines through precious fresh water aquifers, sand mine all of west central WI to frack that rock so natural gas can be delivered right through your kitchen sink faucet. Anything but a freaking wind turbine. /s

    Maybe government’s job right now is to subsidize the grid-builders instead of the other more dangerous (to humans) forms of energy production. Just a thought.

  3. Bill, the wind turbines are not solving the problem they are being built for. Because we do not know when the wind will blow, the coal fired power plants can not be shut down. So we don’t have the coal savings and we still have the high cost of the wind turbines. I would be happy to explain in more detail. I have 30 years of utility experience.

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