March 25, 2008
Wisconsin Farms Clean Up With New Crop
The state's newest energy crop is rising above the rolling farm fields overlooking Lake Winnebago in northeastern Fond du Lac County.
While farmers throughout Wisconsin have planted more corn in recent years to make ethanol, some area farmers will soon receive payments for giving land over to another renewable resource: wind turbines.
More than 170 turbines sit atop towers in two new wind farm projects in Fond du Lac and Dodge counties. The new turbines will generate only a fraction of the state's power needs, yet they are the most significant expansion yet of the state's renewable energy efforts.
"It's our future for energy, isn't it?" said Melvin Olig of Mount Calvary as he took an afternoon walk on country roads with turbines on either side.
Proposals to build the turbines were floated five years ago, and the projects became controversial. Some homeowners worried that the towers would dramatically change the rural landscape, and they raised concerns about noise and other potential problems.
"It doesn't bother me," said Olig, who checks which way the wind is blowing each morning by looking out his kitchen window at the two turbines he can see from his home.
"Some people are quite up in arms about it, but if you're doing something that's legal on your own land, I don't have a problem with it."
Drivers along U.S. Highway 41 see the new crop of turbines on the west side of the freeway near Brownsville and Lomira. Forty-seven of 86 turbines are now providing electricity for the Forward Wind Energy Center, owned by Chicago-based Invenergy Wind. Not all of the turbines are spinning, because the last of the towers were erected this month and are not yet connected to the power grid.
A few miles away to the northeast, about 30 of 88 turbines are connected at We Energies' Blue Sky Green Field farm. Already, the two wind farms have tripled the amount of electricity Wisconsin has generated from wind for the past six years. When they are completely online later this spring, the two farms will generate enough power for 68,000 homes.
A new law says that by 2015, 10% of the state's electricity must be generated from wind turbines, solar panels, landfill gas, cow- manure-to-energy systems and other renewable energy sources.
Andy Hesselbach, We Energies wind farm project manager, said the project will help the utility comply with an earlier requirement to supply at least 4.25% of its power from green sources by 2010.
John Bertram of the Town of Calumet is glad to see the We Energies project move ahead. He's hosting one turbine at his 320- acre farm, where he grows corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa. Bertram said he's glad to receive an annual payment for hosting the turbine and that additional payments to his town will help control property taxes.
"People don't want dirty air, and so they don't want it produced with coal, and they don't want it produced with nuclear, and it seems like oil and gas aren't in unlimited supplies," he said.
"The wind blows every day, maybe not as strong some days as others, but it blows every day -- and it blows all night, too."
Former resident Mike Winkler has a different view. A vocal opponent of what he calls a "windustrial park," he lobbied hard against construction of the wind farm.
He considers wind towers to be eyesores that have wrecked the landscape on the family farm where he grew up. His experience prompted him to write a novella called "Wind Power . . . It Blows!"
Winkler moved to Malone, eight miles away from the Town of Marshfield.
"Now I avoid the area altogether," he said. "Instead of it being a trip down nostalgia lane, I just don't want to even see it."
Earl Steffen, who chairs the Marshfield Town Board, said he thinks most residents support the project, but it's not unanimous.
"Some people don't like it, some people don't care, and the next ones say they look beautiful," he said. "That's just the way it is."
In Madison, renewable-energy advocate Michael Vickerman said opposition to wind farms has cropped up across the state.
Towns and counties have enacted ordinances restricting wind farm development, moves that prompted legislation this year to require standardized siting requirements for wind power projects. The bill was rejected in a narrow vote by the state Senate.
Wind power has grown so rapidly across the country that supporters of green power have expressed frustration at the level of opposition seen in parts of Wisconsin. Other states, including Iowa and Minnesota, have seen far greater expansion of wind power.
Forward project owner Invenergy agreed to compensate landowners who have to look at wind turbines -- even those not on their property. Opponents took the developer to court over concerns about the impact on birds from building turbines near the Horicon Marsh.
That controversy is one reason that Forward has 88 turbines rather than the 133 that were first proposed.
Whether Invenergy returns with plans to add more towers remains to be seen. But We Energies has already begun discussions with landowners about possibly adding dozens more turbines, generating up to 50 additional megawatts of power, Hesselbach said.
Bertram took a break from prepping farm machinery for the spring planting to say he would be willing to host more turbines.
A neighbor, Bertram recalled, has referred to his turbine as his own "401(k) plan."
"As a farmer, when you're growing you reinvest in your business. And you grow more and you reinvest in your business," he said.
But the security of the annual wind-turbine lease payments provides a source of funds that can be set aside and saved.
"You know it's going to be there. If you've got one turbine, that's so much," Bertram said. "If you have three or four, it's a retirement plan."
How much power?
The state's newest wind power projects will generate nearly 275 megawatts of power by May. That's enough to meet the needs of about 68,000 homes.
How does that compare?
One of the 512-megawatt reactors at the Point Beach nuclear plant generates enough power to meet the needs of 256,000 homes.
We Energies pays landowners $3,000 to $8,000 a year for up to 30 years to place towers on their land.
WISCONSIN'S WIND FARMS
Operating statewide in 2007: 30 turbines, 53 megawatts
Largest project built to date: Montfort Wind Farm
Location: Town of Eden, Iowa County
Owner: FPL Energy Inc.
Power output: 30 megawatts
Blue Sky Green Field
Owner: We Energies
Location: Marshfield and Calumet, Fond du Lac County
Power output: 145 megawatts
Status: Built, about 30 turbines are generating power. Fully online by May.
Forward Wind Energy Center
Owner: Invenergy Wind, Chicago
Location: Lomira and Brownsville, Fond du Lac and Dodge counties
Power output: 129 megawatts
Status: Built, 47 are generating power. Fully online by May.
Owner: Wisconsin Power & Light Co.
Location: Eden and Empire, Fond du Lac County
Power output: 68 megawatts
Status: Construction under way, completion expected by end of year