Protesters at the Wisconsin State Capitol in January 2011. (Photo by Emily Mills via Creative Commons)

Wisconsin’s politically contested wind-turbine siting rules would quietly go back on the books if the state’s legislature doesn’t take up the issue this session.

While it’s premature for wind energy supporters to declare victory, the rules’ opponents appear to have little appetite for reopening the controversy, according to observers.

“This is an issue they don’t want to have anything to do with right now,” says Michael Vickerman, director of Renew Wisconsin, a renewable energy advocacy group. “It’s kind of reached the radioactive phase.”

The first-in-the-nation rules were aimed at streamlining the messy, often shifting patchwork of local setback rules, which govern the distance wind developers need to leave between turbines and adjacent homes. A 2009 law instructed regulators to comes up with a statewide setback policy. After two years of hearings and debate, they issued rules restricting turbines from within 1,250 feet of neighboring residences.

On the day the rules were to take effect last March, however, a Republican-controlled legislative committee voted along party lines to suspend the statewide rules. Gov. Scott Walker instead proposed an 1,800-foot setback from the nearest property line, which the American Wind Energy Association said would essentially shut down the state’s wind industry.

Since then, wind developers have cited regulatory uncertainty in suspending or canceling five major developments totaling $1.6 billion in economic investment. Vickerman says wind energy supporters have successfully highlighted the economic consequences of Walker’s action, which is why party leadership seems to have lost interest in the fight.

“These guys are afraid because the issue has boomeranged on them,” says Vickerman. “Scott Walker does not really want to be known as someone who has killed jobs by basically shutting down the commercial wind industry in Wisconsin, and neither do the legislative leaders.”

A pair of bills that would permanently scrap the policy have been collecting dust since they were introduced last year, Vickerman says. Meanwhile, more recent legislation by Sen. Frank Lasee, including a proposed moratorium on new wind projects until studies can prove they are safe to humans and animals, has so far failed to win a committee hearing.

Sen. Lasee didn’t respond to an interview request last week. Neither did the Senate’s utility committee chairman, Sen. Robert Cowles.

We did hear back from Tom Larson, chief lobbyist for the Wisconsin Realtors Association, which was the driving political force last year in opposing the uniform, 1,250-foot setback policy because of concerns it would decrease property value and curb the spread of suburban developments. Larson had little to say on the topic, but he didn’t sound like someone looking for a fight.

“We’d like to see this issue resolved,” Larson said twice. “There are lots of different ways to do it, and we don’t have any one particular way to have it resolved.”

The setback rules’ suspension will be resolved one way or another this spring. If the legislature doesn’t take action before it adjourns, the 1,250-foot setback policy becomes permanently unsuspended. If lawmakers decide to repeal the rules, then regulators at the Public Service Commission will start the rule-making process again.

While legislative leaders haven’t taken the issue up yet, the past year in Madison underscores how unpredictable politics can be. As Vickerman wrote in a recent newsletter:

“Given this peculiar political dynamic, the fate of [the setback rules] will not be known until the gavel comes down signaling the adjournment of the 2011-2012 Legislature.”

(Renew Wisconsin is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News)

4 replies on “Wisconsin lawmakers weary of wind setback issue”