Published on August 8th, 2016 | by Tina Casey0
Wisconsin Wind Industry Finally Shakes Off Koch Brothers
August 8th, 2016 by Tina Casey
The great state of Wisconsin has been a wind energy wallflower despite its prime location in the windy midwestern US. That adds up to a lot of missed economic opportunities, but jobs in the wind industry could come to Wisconsin whether state policymakers like it or not. Wisconsin’s neighbors are gearing up for billions in new wind farms and some analysts predict that the resulting surge in manufacturing jobs will trickle over state lines.
That would be a big help for the “Open for Business” state. Wisconsin has consistently lagged behind the national pace for job creation, though last year its Forbes “Best States for Business” ranking crawled up from the low 40’s to a still-dismal #31.
More Wind Energy Jobs For Wisconsin…
The story behind Wisconsin’s languishing wind industry is a five-year tale of frustration that began in 2011, when state legislators abruptly tore up a painstakingly crafted set of proposed wind farm siting rules.
That same year, the wind industry began surging across the US, even in fossil-friendly states like North Dakota.
Just last spring, Bloomberg took note of Wisconsin’s foot-dragging compared to other states, in the context of the state’s overall economic malaise:
Five years after [Republican Governor Scott] Walker took office, renewable energy in Wisconsin is lagging the boom in the rest of the country and industry blames the two-term governor for the shortfall. Walker and his appointees have pushed new restrictions on windmills, cut tax incentives and research funding…
On the bright side, the American Wind Energy Association depicts Wisconsin as a “national leader” when it comes to wind-related manufacturing jobs.
Wind related manufacturing is where some wind industry observers are pinning their hopes. In a recent story, Wisconsin Public Radio cites Justin Barrett, who teaches wind energy technology at Lakeshore Technical College:
“There’s going to be a lot of manufacturers and installers trying to get parts and things really fast, and I think that’s probably going to be one of the bigger challenges, is for people just to keep up with the supply chain,” he said.
Barrett’s take on the prospects for manufacturing job growth in Wisconsin is based on a sound premise. Just beyond the border is Iowa, the epicenter of midwestern wind energy development thanks partly to the support of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Regional grid operator MISO has also been a huge fan of wind energy, helping to keep the industry hopping in the midwest.
However, a Wisconsin manufacturer cited by WPR warns that wind related manufacturing jobs have so far failed to materialize in significant numbers in the state.
In addition, Barrett’s optimistic take applies to just one aspect of the job-creating potential for wind energy. He prepares his students for on-site wind farm jobs by telling them to plan on moving out of state for work.
On The Other Hand…
However, it seems that cracks are beginning to appear in Wisconsin’s anti-wind armor. The state hasn’t seen a new wind farm in five years, but at least two are now in development.
Spain-based EDP Renewables North America is planning a 49-turbine wind farm in Lafayette County. It hasn’t even begun construction, yet the regional supplier Dairyland Power Cooperative has already snapped up at least some of its 98 megawatt capacity.
In St. Croix County, a 44-turbine wind farm just got the green light from Wisconsin regulators earlier this summer.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, at least three other wind farms are in the pipeline, adding up to 360 megawatts.
So, what brought about the change of heart? Pressure from local and regional utility operators may have had a lot to do with Wisconsin’s newly revived interest in exploiting its considerable wind resources.
The newly soured relationship between Governor Walker and his political benefactors, the Koch brothers, may have also been a factor. Walker had enjoyed the largess of the fossil-centric industrialists in his successful pursuit of the governor’s office and throughout the following years. That connection helps explain his reluctance to promote the state’s wind resources.
Last April, word also leaked out that Walker was the Koch brothers’ favored candidate to win the Republican presidential primary, a prize that would have guaranteed access to the reported $1 billion the brothers were prepared to pour into the general election.
However, the Walker-Koch relationship took a sharp turn south just a few months later, after Walker persisted in pursuit of a stadium deal vigorously opposed by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity.
Relaxing the state’s anti-wind policies could be payback for the stadium pushback, so stay tuned.
Image: Wisconsin wind map via US DOE.