Late this summer, about the time that We Energies starts construction on Columbia County's first wind energy farm, the people of southern Columbia County might know whether the towns of Leeds and Arlington will be the site of the county's second wind farm.
Officials of the Madison-based Wind Capital Group came to County Board's planning and zoning committee almost 18 months ago. They asked for, and got, a conditional use permit for two test towers, each about 197 feet high, to measure wind velocity and direction, to determine if southern Columbia County has adequate wind to sustain a 25- to 33-turbine wind farm capable of generating up to 50 megawatts of electricity.
So far, the data collected at the test towers indicates that southern Columbia County's wind seems sufficient to sustain a wind energy operation, said Tom Green of Wind Capital Group. The planned two-year testing period is scheduled to end in August.
Green said he continues to think that southern Columbia County would be a good location for what would be the company's first Wisconsin wind farm, although it has operations in other states such as Iowa.
Wind Capital Group would sell the wind farm's electricity to utilities.
But whether the wind farm goes in, he said, will depend on what the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin decides, as it sets parameters for wind farms - including setback from neighboring properties - that will apply throughout Wisconsin, and which cannot be made stricter by local authorities.
"You can't have a patchwork of rules throughout the state," Green said.
A new state law directed the PSC to set the statewide rules, which would guide municipalities, such as towns and villages, in regulating wind farms, said PSC spokeswoman Deborah Erwin.
The rules, when they are adopted, will apply to wind farms such as the one proposed by Wind Capital Group - operations that generate less than 100 megawatts.
Larger projects, such as the recently approved We Energies Glacier Hills Wind Park in the Columbia County towns of Scott and Randolph, require direct approval from the PSC. Smaller projects don't need the commission's approval, but would be subject to local regulations, provided that those regulations comply with the rules that the PSC soon will set.
But George Plenty, chairman of the town of Arlington, said officials in his town hope that an ordinance adopted last spring, requiring wind turbines to be at least 2,640 feet from buildings, still will be in place once the PSC establishes the statewide rules.
That ordinance, Plenty said, was in direct response to the proposed wind farm.
Given the density of housing in the town of Arlington, it's unlikely there would be any place in the town where a turbine could be built that would conform to a 2,640-foot setback.
"But I don't know what will happen to this ordinance when the PSC gets involved," Plenty said.
The pending PSC rules were the reason why the town of Leeds didn't adopt any ordinances regulating the placement of wind turbines, said James Foley, Leeds town chairman.
One of the Leeds town supervisors, Alan Kaltenberg, has leased some of his land for one of the test towers. Foley said Kaltenberg would abstain from voting on any matter related to the regulation of wind turbines.
For some town of Leeds residents, Foley said, a wind farm would offer an opportunity to make money from land that might not be particularly productive for farming.
"All these turbines would have to be sited on a high knoll," he said. "High knolls are usually rocky, and farmers can't farm rocks."
Plenty said he's heard of few landowners in the town of Arlington who would be willing to lease their land for a wind turbine location.
One reason for that: Town of Arlington resident Lori McIlrath, who opposes locating a wind farm in the town, has shared her concerns with area farmers.
McIlrath and her husband, Joel, have organized opposition to the project, she said, mainly because they have visited people who live near We Energies' 88-turbine Blue Sky Green Field wind farm in northeast Fond du Lac County.
McIlrath said she thinks a wind farm would cause health problems such as sleeplessness, reduce property values and create around-the-clock noise in what has been a quiet rural area.
"I ask landowners if it's truly worth whatever they'd get for their land, to do this to the community," she said.
Wisconsin utilities already are required to produce a percentage of their power from renewable resources such as wind or solar power. Those requirements might become even more stringent with a bill, backed by Gov. Jim Doyle, that's pending in the Wisconsin Legislature. One of the provisions of the Clean Energy Jobs Act is a proposal to require utilities to use renewable resources for 20 percent of their power by 2020 and 25 percent by 2025.
Wind farms are likely to become more common in Wisconsin, Green said.
That's why, he said, he has made himself available to the public, at Leeds and Arlington town meetings and at small-group sessions with southern Columbia County residents, to answer questions about the effects of a wind farm.
"It's our job," he said, "to present to the public accurate, scientific information, so they can better understand the facts about wind energy."