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Highland hearing pits green energy against public health concerns

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Highland hearing pits green energy against public health concerns
Ellsworth Wisconsin 126 S. Chestnut St. 54011

The Public Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin gathered two more days of testimony regarding the proposed Highland Wind Farm in St. Croix County at hearings in Madison Aug. 14-15.


Technical experts on both sides of the issue presented their opinions about the project, which would install between 41 and 44 wind turbines in the Town of Forest to generate power. A number of Forest residents also testified.

The opponents and proponents of the project have been vocal at a variety of hearings and meetings that have been conducted for more than three years.

The project is being promoted by Emerging Energies of Wisconsin LLC, a Hubertus company that is involved in several wind farm projects. Emerging Energies studied wind speeds in the St. Croix County town for two years before moving forward with the project.

When the wind farm gained the approval of the Forest Town Board, many residents learned about the plan for the first time.

Opponents claim that wind turbines, which are expected to be about 500 feet tall if built in Forest, could cause health problems for people living nearby.

Proponents continue to claim that health concerns are unfounded, and generating more green energy is a good idea to help the nation wean itself from dependence on foreign energy sources.

In the uproar that followed the town’s approval of the project, the entire Forest Town Board was recalled and a new board was elected. The town and many residents have been fighting to stop the wind farm ever since.

Last week’s hearing, which was a continuation of a hearing the PSC conducted months ago, focused primarily on the issue of audible noise generated by wind turbines.

The initial proposal for the wind farm in Forest was previously rejected by the PSC due to noise levels that may exceed established state standards. The turbines are required to emit no more than 50 decibels of sound during the day or 45 decibels of sound at night at nearby homes. If homes are occupied by individuals with health concerns, the PSC has indicated that sound levels should not exceed more than 40 decibels at night.

Emerging Energies tweaked its plans to use technology available on such turbines to slow the operation of the blades down to solve noise issues at night.

Timothy Osterberg, one of Emerging Energies’ principals, said research now indicates that the turbines will operate within the state parameters for sound.

Town of Forest officials and opponents of the plan say that “curtailment” has never been used as a method for keeping sound levels down.

Attorney for the Town of Forest, Glenn Reynolds, said if the wind farm gains approval, residents of the town will be forced to live within the borders of an experiment … “to see if it works.”

Sound experts Joanne Blank and Michael Hankard, speaking on behalf of the Highland project, said computer models indicate that sound concerns can effectively be addressed through “curtailment” efforts.

Hankard said the modeling uses conservative sound numbers and he expects sound levels to fall well below state standards when the wind farm is constructed.

But Forest residents opposed to the project question the accuracy of the computer models during testimony in front of the PSC commissioners.

Some providing testimony also questioned why only three sound monitors are being planned for the Highland site following construction. Several people pointed to a wind farm in Oregon that has installed sound monitors on every home to help record decibel levels. An operator is also onsite all day to adjust turbine operations if sound levels grow too high.

Opponents to the Highland project claimed that there are not enough details in the proposed curtailment plan to adjust operations quickly if noise gets out of hand.

Forest resident Todd Ostberg said some studies indicate that a person’s sleep can be interrupted by noise in the 30 decibel level range. The Highland project’s sound output will be much higher than that, he said.

“Should this project be constructed, it’s going to be one noisy wind farm,” he said.

Forest resident Tamara Linden, who has a daughter with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said the increased noise that will result from the wind farm will negatively impact her family’s quality of life.

“Why should our community be an experiment for wind?” she asked.

Kathryn Keller, 15, told the PSC about her siblings, who suffer from autism and seizure disorder. She said she was worried that turbines too close to their home would make things worse.

“These huge turbines don’t belong near people’s homes,” she said.

Several local residents also indicated that the turbines will emit infrasound, which falls below audible levels, that can also cause health concerns for those living nearby.

Several people who live within a Wisconsin wind farm, known as Blue Sky Green Field, also testified, noting that increased noise has negatively impacted individual lives. They urged the PSC to further study noise levels at existing wind farms and the impact that noise has on people and animals.

The PSC will consider the testimony over the coming days and issue a ruling in the matter at a later date.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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