We Energies will be allowed to build the Glacier Hills Wind Farm

The wind energy project could cost We Energies up to $413.5 million, and would be built by 2012. Customers of the Milwaukee utility would most likely see the project included in their rates beginning in 2012, a utility spokesman said.

The project is needed to help the state’s largest electric utility comply with a state mandate requiring that 10% of Wisconsin’s electricity come from renewable sources of power — including wind, solar and biomass — by 2015. A bill pending in Madison designed to reduce Wisconsin’s carbon footprint would require 25% of the state’s electricity to come from renewable power sources by 2025.

This wind power project alone would increase Wisconsin’s wind power capacity by 30% to 46% said Eric Callisto, commission chairman.

Whether We Energies will build 90 turbines, as it had proposed to do, remains unclear, because the commission imposed restrictions that require turbines to be built at least 1,250 feet from the homes of local residents who don’t host wind turbines on their land.

That’s 250 feet farther than the utility had proposed, and the commission estimated that would eliminate 15 of the 90 turbine sites the utility had listed as preferred locations.

The bigger setbacks were designed to address the concerns of residents worried about the noise and shadow flicker — a phenomenon created by wind turbines’ rotating blades. The Coalition of Wisconsin Environmental Stewardship had raised concerns about the impact of turbines on property values and homeowners’ qualify of life.

Some wind project developers have gotten around those concerns by making payments to local homeowners even if they aren’t receiving annual rent by hosting a turbine on their land.

Callisto proposed that those "good neighbor payments" be made in this case, but he was overruled by commissioners Mark Meyer and Lauren Azar. They objected to that plan as unworkable, saying it would create a precedent that Azar termed "a slippery slope."

Other proposals rejected

In approving the project, regulators rejected a proposal by Chicago wind power developer Invenergy LLC, which wanted the commission to require We Energies to buy power from its proposed Ledge View wind farm in Brown County, south of Green Bay.

Commissioners also rejected a proposal by Clean Wisconsin that We Energies be forced to retire an older coal-fired power plant. That issue will come up in a review the commission will launch this year into the state’s current power glut — caused in part by construction of new power plants and a decrease in power use linked to the recession.

Brian Manthey, a We Energies spokesman, said the utility was encouraged by the commission’s decision but still was investigating the impact of conditions the PSC proposed. Including preferred and alternate sites, the utility proposed 118 locations for wind towers, and it’s unclear how many of those are now out of the running because of the new setback requirement, he said.

As its stands today, We Energies operates the largest wind project in the state, the Blue Sky Green Field project in Fond du Lac County. That wind farm has 88 turbines generating 145 megawatts of power. Based on the type of turbine the utility has announced it would buy, Glacier Hills would be a 90-turbine project that would generate 162 megawatts. That’s enough power over a year’s time to serve about 45,000 homes, the utility says.