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PSC reopens Highland Wind Farm hearing

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New Richmond Wisconsin 127 South Knowles Avenue 54017

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin has reopened the hearing related to the Highland Wind Farm project in St. Croix County.

After rejecting the developer's application earlier last month, the PSC said it will allow Emerging Energies officials to provide further proof that their project, as proposed, would meet state standards and thus deserves approval.

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At its meeting last week, the PSC commissioners voted 2-1 to allow further testimony in the matter. Chairman Phil Montgomery was the key vote, as he had previously voted to reject the Highland application because of concerns that the 44 turbines might exceed noise limits established by state law. He said he was reluctant to switch his stance, however.

"My reluctance stems from the fact that we've already devoted substantial resources to considering this application and, ultimately, I was comfortable voting to deny it," he said.

But, he continued, if the application was rejected, the issue would still likely end up in front of the PSC in the future, and the entire process would start over. He favored getting all the information presented now prior to a final decision being made.

PSC Commissioner Eric Callisto, who had previously suggested that Highland be allowed to offer more testimony, also voted in favor of the reopening. Commissioner Ellen Nowak, however, didn't agree, saying that Emerging Energies should be required to reapply.

In reopening the hearing, Montgomery said any additional testimony or proofs would be limited to the single issue of noise generated by the turbines. He said he remains concerned that six of the proposed turbines would be located near homes with potentially "sensitive" individuals and that ensuring turbines meet state standards should be the job of the developer.

Highland officials have indicated that cutting back the operation of turbines in the evening, when noise levels are required to be no more than 45 decibels, would solve the problem.

The PSC voted to schedule a prehearing conference on May 13. Both sides would then be given time to prepare and answer various filings.

Callisto said he'd be in favor of pushing the process forward, so that Highland officials could have an approval by the end of 2013. That way, he explained, they could take advantage of tax credits available for such renewable energy projects. He suggested the PSC process could be condensed into three or four months, rather than six or seven.

But Montgomery and Nowak said speeding up the process may not be the best idea, suggesting instead that the process be left alone to play out as it will.

Jay Mundinger, a founding principal for Emerging Energies and Highland Wind Farm LLC, said the vote to reopen the hearing was important. 

"Obviously this is great news as we believe that we can address the issue of sound and how Highland is compliant to PSC 128," he said. "We should hear soon regarding the dates to move forward and would communicate those as promptly."

Brenda Salseg, a spokesperson for Forest Voice, a citizen-based group working against the Highland project, said the news was disappointing but residents feel the PSC will still reject the plans.

"We are confident the PSC, which ruled to deny the project, yet voted to entertain the idea of curtailment by granting a reopening of the docket, will wisely find curtailment as a project design unacceptable and uphold that Highland Wind is not in the public interest," she said.

She claimed that industrial wind projects routinely exceed noise limits and complaints from residents about excessive noise typically go ignored.

"If, in fact, Emerging Energies or the system owner expects Highland Wind to qualify for production tax credits, curtailing the turbines would be in direct conflict with electrical production," she said. "With no incentive to curtail, the burden of proof for noncompliance would most certainly fall on nonparticipating Town of Forest landowners."

Salseg said Forest Voice expects to receive intervenor compensation from the state in order to continue to fight the Highland plan.

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