Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, April 19, 2009

Windmills were once a frequent sight in the Wisconsin countryside, pumping water on countless family farms before the use of electricity became widespread.

Now, windmills could again become common as the state tries to meet its goal of generating 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015. In the coming weeks, the state Legislature will have a chance to make it easier for clean-energy creating wind turbines to proliferate in Wisconsin.

These windmills are larger and more powerful than their ancestors. For example, turbines at a wind farm in Fond du Lac County reach nearly 400 feet in the air (counting their blades) and can generate up to 1.65 megawatts of power. (One megawatt is enough for 800 to 1,000 homes.)

Last year’s spike in the price of dwindling fossil fuels should be enough reason for our society to begin shifting to cleaner, more renewable sources. Add to that the growing evidence of global climate change caused by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide released by the burning of those fossil fuels, and the need for renewable energy becomes even more critical.

Today, Wisconsin gets just 3 percent of its energy from renewable sources (mostly wind), far below the 10 percent target looming in six years. Ryan Schryver, a clean energy advocate for Clean Wisconsin, a statewide environmental group, says an additional 600 megawatts of wind power are ensnared in red tape. The state isn’t to blame, however; instead, some local governments have adopted ordinances that restrict the development of wind power. Among them is the Trempealeau County Board, which voted in 2007 that wind turbines taller than 150 feet must be one mile or more from residences, schools, hospitals or businesses. The ordinance essentially prohibits wind power in the county.

Clean Wisconsin is part of a coalition of dozens of groups – including environmentalists, labor unions, utilities such as Xcel Energy, and business representatives such as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce – that supports a soon-to-be-introduced bill that would require the state Public Service Commission to create statewide standards for wind projects. Under current law, local governments can block these projects for health or safety reasons – but those reasons aren’t well-defined, which has led to blanket restrictions such as the one in Trempealeau County.

Critics likely will charge that the bill is an attack on local control. However, it still lets local governments make wind-siting decisions, and allows those who disagree with them to appeal to the PSC and the courts.

It’s understandable that potential neighbors of any large project – including a wind farm – would be concerned about how it might impact their lives. However, the hum of a windmill or the flickering shadows it may create seem greatly preferable to the sulphurous fumes of a coal-fired plant or the potential deadly contamination of a nuclear reactor. Unless we redouble our efforts to pursue clean energy, those may be our only other options to keep the lights on.

– Tom Giffey, editorial page editor