PSC orders Highland Wind Farm application reopened

By LeAnn R. Ralph

TOWN OF FOREST —  The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin has ordered that the Highland Wind Farm application for the Town of Forest be reopened and has scheduled a public hearing for August.

The PSC issued an order to reopen the Highland Wind Farm application May 14.

A 32-page written decision dated March 15 denied the application for Highland’s proposed project to build up to 44 wind turbines in the Town of Forest with the substation located in the Town of Cylon.

The PSC’s decision to deny the application was not unanimous.

Two of the three PSC commissioners voted to deny the application, but one commissioner wrote a five-page dissenting opinion about why the other two commissioners were wrong.

Sound limits

The PSC’s denial of the Highland application revolved around computer modeling for exceeding sound limits.

Wisconsin Administrative Code PSC-128 for wind turbines sets a sound limit of 50 decibels during the day and 45 decibels at night.

According to the order to reopen the Highland application, “A reopening is appropriate under the unique circumstances of this case. However, the proceeding is reopened for the limited purpose of taking evidence on whether and how Highland’s proposed project can meet the proposed standards in Wisc. Admin. Code ch PSC 128.”

Coefficient

PSC-128 does not set a standard for a “ground absorption coefficient” for computer modeling. The coefficient can range from 0.0 to .5 to 1.0 and pertains to the type of terrain and how well it will absorb sound.

A coefficient of 0.0 refers to hard ground that will not absorb sound and 1.0 refers to conditions of terrain and topography that will absorb sound.

Highland submitted sound models using a coefficient of 0.0 and also .5 for a revised layout of the wind turbines.

According to the written decision to deny the application, Clean WI suggested using a coefficient of .5 because it would be a realistic predictor of sound considering the terrain in the Town of Forest.

The Forest Town Board and the Forest Voice wanted 0.0 used for worst-case predicted sound models.

Decibels

The results of Highland’s computer model using 0.0 show that the wind turbines would not exceed 50 decibels during the day but would somewhat exceed 45 decibels at night for between 20 and 45 residences that did not have wind turbine contracts.

According to a table in the written decision, 50 of the 55 turbines would have exceeded the night-time limit by up to 1 decibel; 29 would have exceeded the limit by between 1 and 2 decibels; nine would have exceeded the limit by between 2 and 3 decibels; two would have exceeded the limit by between 3 and 4 decibels; none of the turbines would have exceeded the night-time limit by between 4 and 5 decibels.

The sound of rustling leaves is 10 decibels. A ticking watch held up to the ear is 20 decibels. A refrigerator running or a human voice speaking is 50 decibels.

Disagree

Ellen Nowak, one of the PSC’s three commissioners, disagrees with the order to reopen the Highland Wind Farm application.

In her dissent, Nowak said that during previous hearings for the project’s original application, representatives for Highland Wind Farm spent significant time and energy rejecting the idea of redesigning the project to meet sound limits.

“Now that the project, as presented, was rejected by the Commission, the applicant is more than willing to propose a ‘design’ change, along with an expedited timeline for the Commission and other parties to evaluate the proposal,” Nowak wrote in her dissent.

50 decibels

In the decision denying the Highland Wind Farm application earlier this year, PSC Commissioner Eric Callisto wrote that he disagreed with the other two commissioners because the “denial misapplies our wind siting rules … and introduces substantial uncertainty into the regulation of wind siting in Wisconsin.”

The PSC’s decision is based on “faulty interpretation” of PSC-128, Callisto wrote.

The rules on wind turbines cannot be “rationally read to require that projects be designed and modeled to never exceed 45 (decibels) at all non-participating residences. The rules plainly allow the operation of turbines at 50 (decibels) during the day.”

Callisto goes on to say, “It makes no sense to simultaneously allow turbines to operate at 50 (decibels) during the day while also requiring those same turbines be site-designed in advance to never, under any circumstances, operate at levels that exceed 45 (decibels). But that is exactly the effect of the Final Decision, and it is the chief reason why it is incorrect.”

Although the PSC’s final decision says that Highland did not show enough evidence that using curtailment in the design phase was acceptable, Callisto noted that the PSC’s rules state “methods available for the owner to comply with [the noise limits of 50 dBA during the day and 45 dBA at night] shall include operational curtailment of one or more wind turbines.”

No new hearing

Attorneys representing the citizens’ group the Forest Voice and attorneys for the Town of Forest submitted documents to the PSC asking that the Highland Wind Farm application not be reopened.

Both briefs argue that reopening the application to allow additional information about how sound levels could be reduced is not acceptable under state law.

The briefs also argue that reopening the application is not in the best interests of the health, safety and welfare of residents in the Town of Forest.

“HWF has not met its burden of justifying its request to reopen (the application),” wrote attorneys for the Forest Voice.

“The Applicant has failed to prove that its wind farm would meet applicable guidelines to protect the public interest,” wrote the attorneys for the Town of Forest.

Specific questions

During a meeting of the PSC on June 21, commissioners identified four questions that Highland Wind Farm should answer:

1. Can the project comply with noise standards in PSC 128 of 50 decibels during the day and 45 decibels at night?

2. Can the project achieve a 40 decibels noise standard between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. daily at six residences occupied by people with special needs?

3. Will the proposed curtailment plan ensure compliance with noise standards in PSC 128 and for 40 decibels between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and for 24 hours at the six residences identified as occupied by people with special needs?

4. What post-construction sound protocols and compliance procedures are necessary to ensure continuing compliance with noise standards in PSC 128 and the 40 decibels standard for the six residences occupied by people with special needs?

Public money

During the June 21 PSC meeting, the Forest Voice filed a request with the PSC for money to help them with their case in the amount of $199,605.

The Forest Voice also filed a supplemental request for intervenor compensation in the amount of $37,350.

The PSC modified the request and awarded $32,000 in supplemental intervenor compensation for the Forest Voice to participate in the reopening of the Highland Wind Farm application.

Invoices that required payment for the month of June by the Town of Forest included $6,771 in legal fees to Reynolds and Associates; $2,500 to Reynolds and Associates for expert witness fees; and $6,000 to Vaiyu, Inc. for expert witness fees.

The Town of Forest had an ending checking account balance as of June 30 of $852.

The Town of Forest received a loan advance deposit from Hiawatha Bank of $15,000 on June 30 and received an advance of $30,000 on May 28.

Bus

The Forest Town Board approved ordering a bus at the July 9 town board meeting to transport township residents to Madison for the PSC’s Highland Wind Farm hearing on August 14.

Those who want to travel to Madison on the Town of Forest bus will be charged $15.

About 20 people attended Forest’s town board meeting, and Jaime Junker, town chair, said he was hoping that 100 percent of the township’s residents would go to Madison for the hearing.

Junker urged township residents to submit comments to the PSC urging commissioners to not approve the Highland Wind Farm application.

The stakes are high for health and safety and for property values, Junker said.

Comments submitted prior to the PSC’s denial of the Highland Wind Farm project were successful the last time around, he said.

As of November, the Forest Town Board had spent about $200,000 on legal fees fighting against the proposed wind turbine project.

The PSC will take written comments on the reopened application from Highland Wind Farm until August 13.

Highland Wind Farm has agreements with landowners in the Town of Forest for 6,200 acres.

Highland identified 41 primary sites for wind turbines and 11 alternate sites. The company spent six years and $2 million developing the 102.5 megawatt project.

The Town of Cylon approved plans for the $5 million substation in June of 2012, and the St. Croix County Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the plans last July.