Money & Politics Blog: Turbine jobs are gone with the wind

Dec 14, 2011 - 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.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.