Wisconsin regulators have given a Wisconsin utility permission to build a giant wind farm in southern Minnesota, opening the door for Wisconsin ratepayers to shell out millions of dollars in construction costs.
Wisconsin Power & Light Co. wants to build scores of turbines on 50 square miles just north of Albert Lea in Freeborn County. The project, called the Bent Tree Wind Farm, is expected to cost about $500 million.
The utility hopes to recover the costs through a $91.7 million electric and natural gas rate increase that it wants to impose next year.
That breaks down to about $9 more per month for electricity and $2.40 more per month for gas for a typical residential customer. About one-third of that increase would go toward the wind farm.
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission has jurisdiction over the project because it would affect Wisconsin customers. The commission voted 3-0 to approve the first phase.
Chairman Eric Callisto said the project makes economic sense and will help meet requirements in Wisconsin law that 10 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources by 2015. Those requirements call for Alliant Energy, WP&L's parent company, to get 9 percent of its energy from renewables by then.
"The company needs energy," Callisto said. "That it comes from a wind farm ... is positive."
WP&L still needs approval from Minnesota regulators. The farm would pump energy into the regional grid, which means Minnesota power users would have access to more electricity.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to consider the project within the next few months. Hundreds of Freeborn County landowners support the farm.
Alliant spokesman Steve Schultz acknowledged customers would pay for the farm for years, but said clean energy is worth the investment.
"Customers understand sometimes you have to pay a little bit more to get things built," Schultz said. "For the result, I think most people are satisfied with that."
Charlie Higley, executive director of Citizens Utility Board, a Madison-based ratepayers advocacy group, contended the commission approved the farm under the wrong state statutes.
If the project was approved under the wrong framework, charging ratepayers for it might not be legal, he said.
WP&L filed an application for permission as a certificate of public necessity and convenience, but the commission in November formally deemed the application was for a certificate of authority.
Higley maintains a certificate of authority requires a less-stringent review than the public necessity certificate. He stopped short of promising legal action, however.
The commissioners didn't address the issue during the hearing beyond acknowledging they changed the application.
The first phase of the farm calls for about 120 turbines that would generate 200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 50,000 homes.
Alliant officials say the site could one day support enough turbines to generate 400 megawatts. That's enough for 100,000 homes.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)