Why Scott Walker killed wind energy jobs in Wisconsin

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

When Wisconsin voters elected Scott Walker governor and handed Republicans control of the Legislature, about 1,000 new jobs in the emerging wind energy sector stood waiting on the state’s horizon, according to industry proponents.

But Walker, who received at least $1.5 million in campaign cash directly from interests opposed to wind energy and much more indirectly, quickly quashed the rules that would have allowed those jobs – and the state’s energy independence – to move forward.

Walker’s move reportedly startled wind-energy supporters on both sides of the political aisle, since the so-called “wind siting” rules were ironed out during a year of negotiations with all the major stakeholders and approved by a two-thirds, bipartisan majority of lawmakers during the legislative session immediately preceding the state’s GOP takeover.

Now, with Wisconsin recording the second largest job losses in the nation from May to October 2011, Democrats say the governor, who announced in January that “Wisconsin is open for business,” should explain to voters why he abruptly closed the state to the potentially lucrative wind energy business.  A total of five wind energy companies have suspended or canceled work in Wisconsin since Walker took action to cripple the industry in the state, according to industry representatives.

State Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said he’s particularly disturbed by the Republicans’ reversal on wind energy because it’s one of the few areas of prospective economic development where “the state would not invest any money and could be putting hundreds, possibly thousands of people to work almost immediately.”

Environmentalists charge that the governor has lifted regulations protecting Wisconsin’s wetlands and waterways in order to give free reign to corporate polluters in the name of job creation. They say the Walker administration is currently trying to fast track a hugely controversial mining bill that would jeopardize the state’s groundwater quality.

So why, they ask, is he so concerned about the safety of wind farms, which are operating successfully all over the globe?

“Gov. Walker and his allies in the Legislature are once again bowing to the special interests at the expense of Wisconsin families,” said Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “Wisconsin sends more than $850 million out of state every year to places like Indiana, Wyoming, and Illinois to purchase coal. Wind energy, on the other hand, creates homegrown jobs in manufacturing, construction, and other industries right here in Wisconsin. Reinstating Wisconsin’s wind siting rules could bring back the $1.8 billion in new wind power investments that Gov. Walker chased out of the state.”

3,000 jobs

Wind energy is considered one of the major industries of the future. Both clean and renewable, it’s the fastest growing source of electricity in the world. Experts estimate it will provide about one-third of the world’s electricity by 2050.

Last year, wind powered 26 percent of all new electrical capacity in the United States, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Investors in wind energy viewed Wisconsin as a state with great potential for development. Neighboring Iowa and Illinois are national leaders in the field. Through April of this year, Iowa generated 20 percent of its electricity from wind, according to AWEA statistics. Meanwhile, Illinois ranks fifth for overall installed wind capacity in the United States.

A resource assessment conducted by the National Renewable Energy Lab found that Wisconsin’s wind resources could provide over four times the state’s current electricity needs. Wind energy supported as many as 2,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state during 2010 and generated $900,000 in annual property tax payments as well as $1.4 million in lease payments.

At least 22 facilities in Wisconsin manufacture components for the wind energy industry, and another 171 related supply chain businesses have been established in the state.

Walker’s change of heart toward wind energy put a halt to future growth of this kind. It also provoked two major wind energy developers to pull out of the state, canceling more than $1 billion in investment and about 1,000 new jobs, according to the group Renew Wisconsin.

Invenergy, a Chicago-based company, announced in March that it was canceling the Ledge Wind Energy center, a 100-turbine facility proposed for Brown County, due to the GOP’s refusal to go forward with the compromise wind siting rules. Shortly afterward, Midwest Wind Energy, also based in Chicago, said it was suspending a 75-turbine wind farm that had been under development for four years.

Follow the money

Early opponents to wind energy said the turbines, which look like giant airplane propellers on a stick, are ugly and noisy. They also complained that the blades kill birds and bats, although cars, high-rise buildings and power lines destroy far more animals, according to experts.

But some new opposition voices have recently crept into the debate. A growing number of anti-wind bloggers now contend that undetectable vibrations caused by the spinning of turbine blades can cause health problems – a claim that’s without medical foundation or support.

They also complain about something called “shadow flicker.” When the sun is in a position where rays glance off the spinning blades, it creates a flickering of light similar to that caused by leaves rustling in a summer breeze. Critics insist this scattering of light is a public nuisance.

Wisconsin law only allows for objections to be raised over wind projects if they pose a threat to public health or safety. Proponents of wind energy believe that these new complaints are part of a carefully coordinated strategy to position wind farms as dangerous in ways that the law covers. While proponents credit critics for using their imagination, they laugh at the absurdity of their claims.

So who and what are really behind the new opposition? Wind proponents believe the answer lies in Walker’s campaign finance records.

Records compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign show Walker received $750,833 in campaign contributions from the construction industry and $427,629 from Realtors through Oct. 18, 2010. Both industries oppose wind energy projects out of fear they’ll harm the value of properties located nearby, in the same way that the presence of a nearby railroad track, highway or airport reduces property values.

“I’m not seeing evidence to that effect,” Barca said of critics’ fears that nearby wind farms reduce property values. According to him, the Legislature took property values into consideration when it created the approved wind siting rules. Those rules require turbines to be placed at least 1,250 feet away from an occupied building – a distance that was arrived at through lengthy negotiations with all the major stakeholders, Barca said.

Walker was able to stop the rules by introducing a bill to increase the distance of the so-called “setbacks.”

The oil, coal and gas industries also contributed heavily to Walker – a total of $127,693, according to WDC. Those industries oppose wind energy for the obvious reason that it threatens to take away some of their market share.

Koch Industries, a fossil fuel company that’s grown into one of the nation’s largest private companies, is both one of Walker’s leading financial backers and one of the world’s leading opponents of green energy. The Industrial Wind Action Group, which hosts a website that disseminates negative and outright false information about wind energy, routinely quotes as “experts” affiliates of various front groups supported by Koch Industries, Charles Koch and the Koch family.

According to a press release for the documentary film “Greedy Lying Bastards,” scheduled for release next year, Koch Industries and Exxon Oil have each spent nearly $25 million to undermine the science of global warming. Wind energy has been embraced by environmentalists as a way to slow down climate change.

According to Wisconsin campaign finance filings cited in a report that appeared in February in Mother Jones magazine, Walker’s gubernatorial campaign received $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC during the 2010 election – the campaign’s second-highest contribution.

But the Kochs’ influence in the campaign was far greater than that number suggests. Their PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent a remarkable $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking Walker’s 2010 opponent Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Political issue

During the Legislature’s recent and unsuccessful special jobs session, Barca and other Democrats tried to push forward the wind siting rules as a job-growth measure, but to no avail. In frustration, Barca penned an opinion piece that charged, “Under Gov. Walker, Wisconsin continues to underperform the national economy, yet Republicans continue to push an agenda that sends our jobs out of state.”

Republicans have until March to make changes on the wind-siting rules. If no changes are made, then the rules will go into effect as they were originally approved.

But the GOP has two bills sitting in legislative committees that are designed to kill the original rules and force the state to start the lengthy process of creating siting rules all over again. That would effectively shut down wind energy development in Wisconsin for years while other states continue to forge ahead.

One of the bills was introduced by state Sen. Frank Lasee, R-Ledgeview, who is considering a U.S. Senate run. Lasee’s call for a moratorium on wind energy in the state positions him to receive big money from Koch front groups and other monied players in the fossil fuel industry.

While several other Republicans are expected to join the race, the only announced Democrat so far is out U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin.

Meanwhile, the GOP’s stance against wind energy, while popular with its rich  backers, could prove unpopular with voters as a political issue. Ahead of Walker’s anticipated recall race, Barca and other Democrats are promoting awareness of the governor’s self-inflicted loss of wind energy and high-speed rail jobs. Ultimately voters will decide whether Walker has cost the state jobs in order to pay back his financial benefactors.