Set back

New Governor Scott Walker has made job creation his top priority and has pledged to enact policies that will improve the state’s business climate and result in the creation of 250,000 new jobs in the state by the end of 2014.

However, critics say that some of Walker’s first actions as governor will hurt the “green” economy in the state and result in a loss of jobs and missed opportunities to add jobs.

Those actions include:

  • A proposal to require wind turbine developers not to build within 1,800 feet of another property line.
  • Elimination of plans for a biomass boiler, which burn naturally grown fuels such as wood chips or switch grass, for the redesigned Charter Street power plant in Madison.
  • Cancellation of the high-speed rail project between Milwaukee and Madison.

Walker said the wind turbine setback rule is necessary to protect the rights of property owners.

The biomass boiler at the Charter Street power plant was too expensive, Walker said, and replacing the plant’s coal boilers with natural gas boilers instead will result in a savings of $100 million, according to the Department of Administration.

Walker said the $810 million high-speed rail project was a “boondoggle” and was far too expensive and would attract few riders. Although the federal government was providing the funds to establish the service, the state could not afford the operating costs for the high speed rail line, he said.

The high-speed train, the biomass boiler at the Charter Street power plant and subsidies for green industries were strongly supported by former Gov. Jim Doyle, who argued that green industries would produce jobs in the state and improve the state’s economy by producing, rather than importing, energy sources. Doyle established a global warning task force and wanted the state to set a standard to generate 25 percent of its fuel from renewable resources by 2025. That proposal was part of the Clean Energy Jobs Act that was proposed last year, but failed to garner enough legislative support.

In another example of the different approach to green industries taken by Democrats, on his recent visit to Manitowoc, president Barack Obama praised Orion Energy Systems Inc., which produces energy efficient industrial lighting systems and controls, but argued that government investment to promote green energy development had helped establish the company. However, the company has not been consistently profitable.

Walker is pushing a plan to improve the state’s business climate for all industries, rather than trying to support preferred industries, such as green energy.

“Governor Walker is focused on ensuring Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 jobs across all economic sectors,” said Cullen Werwie, Walker’s spokesman. “Governor Walker believes in reforming the rules and regulation process in Wisconsin that slows the growth of new and emerging industries. These industries, which can certainly include renewable energy and other green economy clusters, can be areas of growth for the state if state rules don’t hold them back.”

However, advocates for the wind energy industry have been critical of the setback rule proposed by Walker.

“There is no other statewide requirement that extensive anywhere else in the country,” said Jeff Anthony, director of business development for the American Wind Energy Association. “If passed, the new legislation could effectively shut down the wind industry here in Wisconsin. It’s a jobs killer and frankly a step backwards from an economic development standpoint, and not just for wind projects themselves but for the manufacturing sector in the state, which would be making the parts for the turbines.”

One of those companies is Ingeteam Inc., a Bilbao, Spain-based company that is building a 140,000-square-foot plant in the Menomonee Valley in Milwaukee to manufacture generators and converters for wind turbines and solar panel inverters. A spokesperson for Ingeteam said the company’s executives had heard about Walker’s wind energy setback requirement, but that the executives had not had sufficient time to evaluate it or make comments on it.

The existing wind turbine setback rule requires a distance of at least 1,250 feet from any occupied dwelling. The rule was to go into effect in March.

“(That) legislation, was a compromise for landowners and wind power companies,” Anthony said.

The 1,800-foot setback rule from a neighbor’s property line would have a devastating impact on the wind power industry in the state, said Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a renewable energy organization. He said there are at least 11 proposed wind turbine projects in the state that will not comply with the new rule and would not be able to go forward.

“If this bill were adopted it would essentially put wind energy out of Wisconsin,” he said. “There would be no reason for wind energy development companies to stay in the state because they couldn’t make a living doing it.”

After the Illinois Legislature decided recently to raise taxes, Walker revised an old Wisconsin tourism slogan and invited Illinois businesses to “Escape to Wisconsin,” where he plans to improve the business climate. But in response to Walker’s proposed wind turbine setback law, the Illinois Wind Energy Association is inviting Wisconsin businesses in the wind energy industry to “Escape to Illlinois.”

“Even the strictest county setbacks in Illinois are nowhere near as extreme as what Wisconsin would have if this bill passes,” said IWEA executive director Kevin Borgia. “Illinois has no statewide minimum setbacks.”

However, not all green industry representatives are concerned about the Walker administration’s policies.

Chatsworth, Calif.-based solar panel manufacturer W Solar Group is moving ahead with plans to move its corporate headquarters to the Madison area and plans to build a factory and create 600 jobs, in the central part of the state. Areas under consideration for the factory include Wausau and Eau Claire.

“We feel there is a lot of potential for job growth in the state of Wisconsin in the solar industry and we think solar is going to be one answer to a lot of the state’s job needs,” said Bill McClenahan, director of government affairs for the Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association.

And despite Walker’s elimination of the biomass boiler at the Madison power plant project and despite opposition from several Republican legislators to any mandates for the usage of ethanol in gasoline, a biofuels industry representative said the industry will grow in the state.

“We think the ethanol industry aligns quite well with Governor Walker’s vision for creating jobs here in Wisconsin,” said Josh Morby, executive director of the Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance. “The Wisconsin ethanol industry produces half a billion gallons of ethanol annually and uses more than 185 million bushels of corn from local farmers. That corn used to be exported outside of the state of Wisconsin prior to the ethanol industry and now more than a third of it is returned to local farmers as feed for their animals. The industry has created jobs that can process that corn and we’re excited about those jobs and the people we employ. We’re hopeful we can work with the administration to continue to do that and create more jobs and generate more revenue for the state of Wisconsin.”

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