Tilting at turbines
January 31, 2011
By Michael Timm
The project would be funded by a $400,000 federal grant designated for a high-visibility project to benefit city-owned property and that demonstrates a commitment to renewable energy. The city’s Office of Environmental Sustainability administers this money and has identified a wind turbine on one of these sites as its “first and best” option for the grant.
Depending on which turbine and which site is selected, up to about $200,000 in Focus on Energy and We Energies incentives and grants are also expected, which would completely cover all associated costs (the most expensive option would cost $500,000-600,000).
Electricity generated at either site would offset that used at the nearby Port of Milwaukee administration building. The Department of Energy requires Milwaukee to “commit” its funds by April 25.
2 Turbine Possibilities
• 115-foot 20-kilowatt Renewegy Wind Turbine or
• 154-foot 100-kilowatt Northern Power Wind Turbine
Public reaction to the wind turbine at a Jan. 13 meeting at the South Shore Park Pavilion was intense but mixed. Approximately 150 people were present and 48 spoke over the course of almost three hours. The Compass counted 16 who testified for the turbine, 18 against, and 14 who expressed concern. At the meeting’s conclusion, 14th District Alderman Tony Zielinski promised another meeting for constituents to weigh in and said he would not support a wind turbine if a majority of his district opposed it.
Some of the vocal opposition was based on misconceptions about these “commercial-scale” wind turbines, which are about three times smaller than “industrial-scale” wind turbines like those on Fond du Lac County’s wind farms. Residents expressed fear about noise, safety, and shadow flicker from spinning blades.
A contingent of residents from the Bay View Terrace condo tower expressed distaste for a wind turbine tarnishing their view of the lake and city skyline. Many also questioned this use of their federal tax dollars and some expressed a not-in-my-backyard, send-it-back mentality, seeming emboldened by Governor Walker’s recent refusal of over $800 million in federal stimulus funds to construct a high-speed rail route between Milwaukee and Madison.
Others expressed support for renewable energy but remained skeptical of a wind turbine for this site; they wanted a solar option instead.
Older residents along Shore Drive also seemed reluctant to stomach change—especially at the CDF site where the turbine was anticipated to have greater visual impact than by the port building. Several also questioned how a wind turbine would impact the many species of migratory birds that use the CDF as a prime stopover point after crossing Lake Michigan.
But the crowd wasn’t aroused about birds. How the turbine would impact lakefront aesthetics was a concern. As one opponent summarized his frustration, “I will see it every day when I wake up.”
Matt Howard, city environmental sustainability director, responded to many concerns at the meeting. He stressed the safety record of both turbines and named sites in Wisconsin where he said the same models are working silently and effectively with little or no neighbor complaints (Renewegy at Orion Energy in Manitowoc, Northern Power at Madison Area Technical College in Fort Atkinson).
He cited a Focus on Energy report that claims just 1.29 birds die per wind turbine tower per year in Wisconsin, which pales in comparison to bird collisions with buildings, windows, communication towers, and death by cat.
Shadow flicker was argued to not apply in this case because no residences would exist in either tower’s shadow (the sun would have to shine through the spinning blades to cause the disturbing effect; some Fond du Lac County residents literally live in the shadow of much taller turbines).
Lake Express owner Ken Szallai expressed concern about the turbine interfering with his vessel’s radar. Howard said he could only say that the FAA has indicated the wind turbine would not pose an aviation hazard and said the National Weather Service has determined the turbine would have limited to no impact on Doppler weather radar systems. He said his conversations with the nearby Coast Guard have not raised similar concerns.
Responding to those who wanted a solar project, Howard countered that the city already has its Milwaukee Shines program dedicated to solar.
In the weeks following the public meeting, Howard’s office reviewed feedback and at press time was preparing an FAQ web page responding to concerns (milwaukee.gov/sustainability). The city also opted to reevaluate the larger wind turbine at the port building site—at the meeting this was not presented as an option because of concern over the taller tower being too close to Wisconsin Department of Transportation property (I-794), Howard said.
“It is an option. It’s an option now,” Howard said. “Because of some of the input we received at the community meeting. So we threw it back into play. A lot of comments were made about the importance of payback, how quickly this thing would pay for itself. To consider the best options, we have to consider the tallest tower.”
Placing the taller tower by the port building would not be as efficient as placing it out on the CDF—because of turbulence from the nearby Hoan Bridge—but it’s still estimated to produce enough electricity to offset the entire building’s usage. The shorter turbine could only produce a fraction of the building’s annual electricity at either site.
4 Possibilities: 2 Turbines, 2 Sites
The wind resource is richer farther from shore and higher from the ground, where surrounding obstacles like the Hoan Bridge cause turbulence.
One outstanding legal issue is whether Wisconsin law permits a wind turbine on the CDF site, which is filled lakebed land technically granted to the city of Milwaukee by the state of Wisconsin with acceptable uses governed by the state’s Public Trust Doctrine. Generally, those uses are navigation or recreation.
The Milwaukee city attorney’s office issued an opinion in response to Alderman Zielinski’s request on the issue, but offers little clarity. The Legislature intended “broad but not unlimited discretion” for how the city can use the filled land, city attorneys Grant Langley and Stuart Mukamal wrote Jan. 24. They felt there’s a good argument to be made for the wind turbine as an acceptable use in powering the port building—arguably an aid to navigation—but said they could not predict the result of potential litigation based on the doctrine.
Howard, too, took a cautious line in his statement to the Compass. “It appears that the Public Trust Doctrine gives broad and liberal, but not unlimited, degree of discretion to the city in its selection of the permitted uses for these lands. A wind turbine would directly power the port administration building and enhance the Port Authority’s operational efficiency. A wind turbine would thus be located on a site that the WDNR has determined is an acceptable use under public trust [as a confined disposal facility for dredge spoils]. The CDF itself is currently off limits to the public.”
Separately, the Lakefront Advisory Development Commission (LDAC) is also anticipated to hold a meeting about the wind turbine proposal, possibly in February (check bayviewcompass.com for updates).
Howard wants to give the public several weeks to digest the information at his FAQ page. He said he’d have a better idea of the next steps in the public process in late February or early March.
Debate Not Over
While perhaps not as loud as the naysayers or uncertain as the skeptics, lots of people at the public meeting expressed excitement about the wind turbine and clamorous applause was not limited to either side.
Supporting speakers expressed optimism about the turbine as a progressive beacon that would showcase Milwaukee’s innovation to other cities, improve its image on the national stage, and provide an enduring symbol to future generations that the city believes in renewable energy. They looked on the turbine not as a panacea but rather as a small, first step in the right direction.
Some proponents also invoked comparisons with We Energies’ Oak Creek lakeside coal plant. Bay View’s Mark Gill encouraged people to consider the “dysfunction” in the current power generation system and felt a wind turbine was a great beginning. “I think Bay View has enough people not afraid of change and we can chart a new path and we have to start doing it now.”
Howard remains passionate about what he sees as a golden opportunity to capitalize on “one of the best wind resources in southeastern Wisconsin.”
“Bottom line is: it would be a bold statement for Milwaukee and would really go a long way to redefining our image to the rest of the country,” Howard said. “It’s really just the tip of the iceberg of what Milwaukee has become in the last 10 to 15 years in terms of revitalizing lakefront, rivers, and turning from the old way of manufacturing to more sustainable manufacturing in the Menomonee Valley. In addition to providing power for a port administration building, it will also be a powerful symbol for Milwaukee, for its modernization, for looking forward, for being progressive in a state that’s supposedly known for being progressive.”
For Matt Howard’s Wind Turbine FAQ: milwaukee.gov/sustainability
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