Editorial: A new spring for renewable energy

Source: By Milwaukee Wisconsin Sentenintal Editorial Board • Posted: Friday, April 1, 2016

Turbines on a We Energies wind farm near Johnsburg in northeastern Fond du Lac County in 2014.

Turbines on a We Energies wind farm near Johnsburg in northeastern Fond du Lac County in 2014. Credit: Mark Hoffman

Wisconsin’s renewable energy landscape has been pretty much frozen for the last five years, especially when it comes to wind farms. While neighboring states have been blossoming with wind development in recent years, Wisconsin has become almost a “black hole” of development, according to one renewable energy advocate.

And it shows: Wisconsin ranks ninth among 12 Midwest states in a ranking released Tuesday of jobs in the clean energy sector — including energy efficiency, renewable energy and biofuels. Where Wisconsin has about 25,000 people employed in clean energy jobs, Illinois, which ranks first in the Midwest, employs 112,000 people in clean energy jobs. Apparently, Gov. Scott Walker’s invitation a few years ago to Illinois companies to move north wasn’t extended to the renewable energy industry. Too bad: Wisconsin workers could use those jobs.

But just as spring is breaking up the ice around Wisconsin, there are signs that a thaw is coming for renewable energy. The state, and in particular the Public Service Commission, should do all it can to hasten that warming.

Among the signs: The Journal Sentinel’s Thomas Content reported that nearly 50 turbines could be built over the next year or so in Lafayette County east of Platteville in southeastern Wisconsin, and Emerging Energies of Wisconsin is proposing to build 44 large wind turbines in St. Croix County in western Wisconsin. Other projects may also be developed.

EDP Renewables, a global renewable energy company based in Spain, is looking to build the Lafayette County wind farm in 2017 after completing preparatory work this year. The project, valued at about $200 million, would generate up to 99 megawatts of electricity, or just barely under the threshold that would require it to obtain a permit from the PSC.

Meanwhile, regulatory agency is taking yet another look at the $250 million St. Croix County wind farm, which has been on the drawing board for more than five years. A PSC permit to allow the project to proceed was challenged in court, and St. Croix County Judge Edward Vlack last summer sent the case back to the commission for more work.

The project has raised concerns among neighbors that need to be addressed. But we hope that the PSC, after a thorough vetting, finds a way to move this and other projects forward.

Renewable energy (including wind farms) is one tool that can help mitigate the effects of climate change, which is real and becoming more urgent, despite the wishful thinking of some who think they can just close their eyes and it will all go away. And yes, this applies to many of the candidates who are now (and will be for months to come) assaulting voters around the state, as well as to Gov. Scott Walker and the state Legislature, which took steps to restrict wind farm construction during Walker’s first term. In fact, it was the Walker administration’s and Legislature’s disdain toward climate change that essentially put wind farm development into the deep freeze.

Not all is bleak: Wisconsin has done relatively well on energy conservation and Wisconsin utilities have met a goal of already built enough to comply with Wisconsin’s law requiring 10% of the state’s electricity to come from renewable power sources.

But wind power development among our neighbors is booming, up 45% in five nearby states compared with growth of 3% in Wisconsin, according to an analysis of market data from the American Wind Energy Association.

And that 10% renewable energy goal is pretty anemic, given the challenge of climate change and new federal goals for renewable energy. State government (including the PSC) needs to step up its game. It will mean new jobs for Wisconsin workers as well as the state doing its part to meet a serious global threat.

Here’s hoping for a new spring for renewable energy.