In an epic case of bad timing, last week the Wisconsin legislature abruptly suspended the state’s new rules for siting wind farms. The rules were set to take effect on March 1 after having been worked out in a public process over two years, with hundreds of stakeholders involved. The move threatens to halt the future development of wind energy resources in Wisconsin, just when the U.S. wind industry is poised for growth, aided in part by the recent spike in oil prices.
Wisconsin, Jobs, and Wind Power
According to the American Wind Energy Association, the suspension of the Wisconsin Wind Siting Rules (aka PSC128) created an environment of uncertainty for wind power investors, effectively putting a freeze on new wind developments in Wisconsin. AWEA calculates that just adding up the impact on projects in the proposal pipeline, Wisconsin workers stand to lose 2 million hours of work, and the state’s economy is deprived of $1.8 billion in new investments.
Wind Power and Farmlands
Unlike fossil fuel operations, wind power installations can harvest energy without destroying large chunks of the environment in their host communities. Wind farms are not impact-free, of course, but they can be sited on farmlands with minimal footprint. One great example is a new wind power installation on farmland in Missouri, which is creating new jobs and returning tax revenue to the community, while providing local farmers with extra income from leasing. Translate that kind of activity to Wisconsin, and you’ve got truly sustainable economic growth.
A Growth Opportunity for Wind Power
Alternative energy is becoming more competitive with conventional energy, and the current oil price spike is giving alternatives an additional boost. Among U.S. electric utilities, the difference between green energy and conventional energy has already narrowed dramatically since 2000. In California, solar energy could soon reach parity with natural gas, and one study shows that wind power is now competitive with coal. In terms of boosting domestic manufacturing related to alternative energy, the oil price spike gives another edge to wind power. Due to the sheer size and bulk of wind turbine components, shipping is a major factor in the installed cost of wind energy. With higher oil prices comes a further increase in shipping costs, making domestic manufacturing a more attractive alternative to shipping in components from overseas.
Stakeholders and Economic Development
The Wisconsin wind power stakeholder process had great potential to push economic development forward, by defining a common ground in which diverse elements in government, industry and the private sector could discover where their interests overlap. A quick look at nearby Indiana shows what can happen. The state boasts a booming alternative energy sector that includes wind farms, a federal loan guarantee for the largest thin film solar plant in the U.S., and a stakeholder project called the Energy Systems Network, which is bringing in new jobs in electric vehicle manufacturing and related fields through its “Project Plug-In” program.
Old Energy, New Energy
AWEA has described the Wisconsin legislature’s decision as a “highly unusual and drastic move,” but given the influence of oil money in Wisconsin politics, it’s not much of a surprise. Wisconsin Governor Walker already raised eyebrows by inserting an item in the budget bill enabling the sell-off of publicly owned power plants without an open bidding process. Politics and fossil fuels have been tightly entwined in the U.S. for generations, but with the economics of alternative energy continuing to improve, the situation in Wisconsin could very well represent the last, mighty gasp of a dying industry.
Image: Wisconsin wind turbine by chief_huddleston on flickr.com.