Wis. Court: Regulators Properly Approved Wind Farm
Wisconsin regulators properly applied broad review standards on a Madison-based utility's plan to build a wind farm in southern Minnesota, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The court ruled 5-2 that more stringent standards are reserved for in-state projects. The decision provides a roadmap for state regulators as they ponder Wisconsin utilities' applications for out-of-state projects. Critics said the ruling dramatically lightens the regulatory burden for utilities and cuts ratepayers out of the approval process.
"We think that a state boundary line should not diminish the standard of review for large projects," said Todd Stuart, executive director of the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, which advocates for affordable power for businesses.
The industrial group and the Citizens Utility Board, which advocates for residential and small business energy consumers, filed a lawsuit contending the Public Service Commission approved Wisconsin Power & Light's plan to build a massive, 200-megawatt wind farm north of Albert Lea under the wrong statutes.
The PSC approved the wind farm three years ago under a so-called certificate of authority rather than a certificate of public convenience and necessity, which would have required more stringent review of the project. For example, the CPCN route requires a public hearing, as well as PSC determinations that the project is in the public interest, won't cause undue harm to the environment and would satisfy the public's need for an adequate energy supply. The certificate of authority doesn't include any of those requirements.
The consumer groups argued the CPCN process offers ratepayers more protection and must apply to projects that would produce more than 100 megawatts.
Dane County Circuit Judge John C. Albert ruled the PSC properly applied the certificate of authority. The Supreme Court voted 5-2 to uphold Albert's ruling, saying the PSC's decision was reasonable.
The CPCN process includes provisions that allow projects to pre-empt local ordinances and require the PSC to review site-specific impacts, notify county clerks and libraries near the project of applications and hold any contested case hearings in that area, Roggensack noted. Those conditions could infringe on another state's sovereignty or create absurd burdens on Wisconsin agencies, she wrote.
The certificate of authority still allows the PSC to deny projects that would hurt a utility's efficiency, create unnecessary facilities or aren't cost effective, she added.
"Any unreasonable or absurd results are avoided by the PSC's construction of the CPCN law as applying exclusively to facilities in this state," Roggensack wrote.
The court's liberal-leaning minority, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, dissented. Bradley wrote a PSC administrator has the ability to approve a project under the certificate of authority, muting ratepayers.
"When Wisconsin ratepayers will fund the costs of large facilities, whether in-state or out-of-state, it is sensible to require a hearing and scrutiny by the commission that is empowered by statute to regulate Wisconsin energy," Bradley wrote.
The PSC approved the $446.7 million Bent Tree farm in 2009. It was completed in February 2011. WP&L hopes to recover the costs over 20 years through rates. In 2010 the PSC approved the utility's request to devote $3.7 million of a $38 million rate increase to the project.
CUB Executive Director Charlie Higley said he was disappointed.
"Ratepayers lose their voice," he said.
PSC spokesman Matt Pagel said the commission was pleased with the decision. Steve Schultz, a spokesman for Alliant Energy, WP&L's parent company, said the court made the correct ruling.
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