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the cooperative agreement with the Public Service Commission [PDF].
Contact information
For information on power plant projects, contact:
Ben Callan,
Integrated Services Section

Power plants

The DNR administers permit programs that control how much pollution can be released to the air, water and land as well as how much water can be withdrawn from surface and ground water sources. The DNR also regulates structures, fills and dredging projects in navigable waters and oversees shoreland and wetland zoning programs. Any combination of these permits may be required for a power plant.

More information about the major permitting programs within the DNR pertaining to power plant siting and licensing is available in the tabs below.


Air pollution emissions

For permitting purposes, air pollution sources are grouped based on size and location into major and minor attainment area sources, and major and minor non-attainment area sources. A large new power plant using a combustion technology is likely to be a "major source" (as defined in clean air laws), so minor sources will not be discussed in this summary. This discussion includes power plants that burn fuels including coal, natural gas, industrial residues, or wood.

An attainment area is an area where the national ambient air quality standard for a particular pollutant is being met. A non-attainment area for a particular pollutant is an area where the ambient air quality standard for the pollutant is not being met.

The air quality impacts of any proposed major new source must be thoroughly reviewed before it is issued permits to construct or operate. A major new source proposed in a non-attainment area must meet stringent conditions (specified below) so that it does not further degrade air quality in the non-attainment area. A major new source locating in an attainment area must undergo a PSD (prevention of significant deterioration) review to ensure that it will not significantly diminish air quality in the attainment area, and leaves room for other emission sources.

Emissions of the following air pollutants require air permits: total suspended particulates, particulate matter less than ten microns (PM10), lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and any of the hazardous compounds listed in Chapter NR 445, Wis. Adm. Code.

The processing of an air permit application for a large power plant follows these steps:

  1. Submittal of a complete application
    The applicant must submit a complete application before the review process begins. The application must include all pertinent information, including site location, facility configuration and design, fuel composition and burning rates, air pollutant emission rates, air pollution control equipment design and efficiency, and an analysis of the impact the source will have on air quality. A permit application is complete only when all of the required information has been received.
  2. Department review and preliminary determination
    The Department has 120 days to review the permit application and make a preliminary determination as to whether it may be approved. A permit application may be approved if the proposed source meets certain conditions, such as the following.
    • It will meet all applicable emissions limitations.
    • It will not cause or exacerbate a violation of an ambient air quality standard or an ambient air increment. Ambient air increments (or PSD increments) represent a margin of air quality that may not be used by any new source that locates in an attainment area. Increments are applied to preserve air quality in attainment areas.
    • It will not degrade the air quality in an area enough to prevent the construction or operation of another source for which an application has already been filed.

In addition, attainment and non-attainment area major sources must meet other conditions.

  1. Attainment area sources (PSD review)
    • The source must use the best available control technology (BACT) to control emissions of each applicable air contaminant. BACT is determined by comparing the performance of similar units permitted recently.
    • The source must not adversely affect air quality related values of any National Park, wilderness area, etc. These values may include visibility or other characteristics.
    • The permitee must carry out air quality monitoring to measure its’ effects on air quality.
  2. Non-attainment area sources
    • The source must offset any increases in emissions by obtaining emission decreases from other sources that are in, or significantly affect, the air quality in the non-attainment area. The total for the area of emissions of the non-attainment pollutant(s) after the offsets must be less than the total emissions allowed in the area before the permit application.
    • The air pollutants from the source will be emitted at the lowest achievable emission rate (LAER) [a technical determination] for each non-attainment air contaminant.
    • All other sources in Wisconsin controlled by the permit applicant must meet all applicable air pollution control requirements.
    • For major sources proposed to be located in carbon monoxide or volatile organic compound non-attainment areas, the benefits of the construction of the source must outweigh the environmental costs imposed by the source's location.
Public comment and final determination

The department publishes a legal notice describing the preliminary determination in a newspaper widely circulated in the project area. The public has thirty days from the publication date to comment on the proposed permit. If requested, the department may hold a hearing on the proposed air permit at which verbal comments will be accepted. It can be combined with a hearing on an EIS, if one is prepared.

Based on the preliminary determination, and on any information received during the public comment period or at the public hearing, the department determines whether the criteria for issuing the permit will be met. Then the department either issues or denies the permit, or sets conditions in the permit to ensure that all criteria will be met.


Wastewater discharge

The DNR administers the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program of the federal Clean Water Act. This law requires that anyone who proposes to discharge pollutants to waters of the state (both surface and ground water) must first obtain a permit, which limits pollutant discharges to protect water quality.

Any proposed discharge permit must include a public notice. In addition to providing comments, five or more individuals may request a public informational hearing, which must be held before the Department makes a final determination on the discharge permit.

In addition to any federal requirements for an industrial category, Wisconsin has numerical standards for many substances, some of which could be of concern at power plants. Examples are chemicals like chlorine that are added to control fouling. These might be present in the blowdown. Wisconsin’s antidegradation law applies to any new discharge, requiring more restrictive limits than those in force for an existing facility.

An additional concern for a steam cycle power plant would be the discharge of heat. Any new plant would be issued a permit that includes heat restrictions to protect aquatic life in the area affected by the discharge.

Power plant cooling water intakes must be designed to meet state and federal laws to minimize the number of organisms drawn through the power plant cooling system. For example, the velocity of the intake water is limited to protect fish larvae and other small organisms.

Drinking water/groundwater

Drinking water & groundwater

Many power generation facilities use large quantities of water to produce steam to operate the steam turbine-generators and condense the steam for reuse. This water may be obtained from surface waters, groundwater or treated wastewater. When large quantities of water are required, the facility is required to obtain approval from the Department for the water withdrawal or diversion. A consumptive use exceeding 2 million gallons per day requires an approval under standards set in s. 281.35, Wis. Stats. This approval is coordinated with permits for pumping groundwater and/or discharging wastewater.

Any groundwater withdrawal over 70 gallons per minute requires an approval from the Department, per s. 281.17, Wis. Stats. The purpose of this review is to prevent potential, adverse impacts to groundwater availability to public utility wells. Requests for approval for diversions from surface waters are generally reviewed in the Department's regional offices.

To ensure that municipal systems are not adversely affected, wells pumping more than 70 gallons per minute must be reviewed by the Drinking and Groundwater program.


Waterway & wetland permitting

Navigable waters are those with a bed and banks that are capable of floating – on a recurring basis - a shallow-draft recreational watercraft. Those streams appearing as perennial or intermittent on U.S.G.S. topographic maps are generally navigable. The navigability status of any stream or pond should be determined early in the site planning process.

Any project that would affect a public waterway may require a permit under the authority of Ch. 30, Wis. Stats.. These activities could include cooling water intake structures, wastewater discharge structures, and grading along the banks of state waters. Ch. 30 is intended to protect public rights in navigable waters.

This permitting program is coordinated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitting authority under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act.

Additionally, permits may be required for activities that may affect wetlands under the requirements of ss. 281.36, Wis. Stats., Ch. NR 103, Wis. Adm. Code, and Ch. NR 299, Wis. Adm. Code. The standards set in NR 299 and NR 103 require the applicant to demonstrate that they have considered practicable alternatives that avoid and minimize wetland impacts, and that the project will not have significant adverse impacts to wetland functions and values.

Please contact the Environmental Analysi and Sustainability program staff for more information regarding power plant permitting.

Solid waste

Solid waste & landfills

For some power plants using solid fuels (primarily coal) a new landfill may be needed to receive ash and other solid wastes. All new landfills and expansions of existing landfills must obtain both state and local approvals before construction. The state licensing process and the negotiation or arbitration of local approvals are two separate but concurrent processes.

The state licensing process, administered by the DNR, is a technical review to determine if the proposed landfill site and design meets all applicable public health and environmental standards. The local approvals process considers the local economic, social and land use impacts of the proposed facility. The applicant negotiates local approvals with affected local units of government. That process is overseen by the Waste Facility Siting Board, which arbitrates local approvals upon the landfill applicant's request.

A guidance report entitled Electric Utility Pre-CPCN Approvals and Applications (WA-606) [PDF] released in 2004 helps summarize waste-related requirements for proposed large electric generation facilities of 100 megawatts or more.

State approval process

The state approval process includes the following five major steps mandated by Wisconsin State Law.

  1. Initial site inspection
  2. Initial site report
  3. Feasibility report
  4. Plan of operation report
  5. Construction documentation

The feasibility report is the most critical step required for a new landfill (or expansion of an existing landfill). Obtaining a favorable feasibility determination from the DNR virtually assures the applicant that from a technical standpoint the landfill can be developed. The feasibility of the facility is primarily based on a hydrogeological investigation, the proposed engineering design, an evaluation of the waste management alternatives, the need for facility, and compliance with location and performance standards.

Landfills cannot be located within a floodplain or too close to surface water, highways, public parks, or water supply wells. They cannot have a negative impact on endangered or threatened species, critical habitat, or areas of natural, scientific, historic, or archaeological significance.

For a solid-fueled power plant, the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act (WEPA) process applies to the feasibility determination. It must consider impacts caused by any landfill required to dispose of ash or other solid waste. After the process has been completed, the reviewer summarizes the feasibility report and issues a public notice of completion that:

  1. asks the public for comments on the proposal; and
  2. informs the public of the opportunity for an informational or a contested case hearing on the technical feasibility of the proposal.

If no hearing is requested, or if an informational hearing is requested, a feasibility determination is written. If a contested case hearing is held, the feasibility determination must be made within 90 days after the contested case hearing. It is conducted like a court trial with witnesses, including the DNR reviewers, testifying under oath. This type of hearing is intended to address the technical issues of site feasibility including the need for the landfill and its ability to meet design and performance standards, protect public health, welfare, and the environment.

If a facility is deemed feasible, the applicant submits a Plan of Operation, which must meet performance standards and include specific design elements to address potential impacts. If a plan of operation is approved, the applicant may construct the landfill.

If a construction documentation approval is received, the applicant may apply for a license and begin accepting waste upon receiving it.

Local approvals process

In addition to the state licensing process, the applicant must obtain any applicable local approvals. These include any permits or approvals required by pre-existing local ordinances (zoning variances, building permits, etc.). Although local approvals are only needed before construction, as a practical matter, most applicants do not proceed with a plan of operation until the local approvals are resolved.

The local approvals process has two major steps - negotiation and state arbitration. An applicant for a new or expanded facility must apply for local approvals before submitting a feasibility report to the DNR. Affected municipalities within 1,200 feet the proposed landfill, and the county may negotiate with the applicant. The site owner may offer design, financial and operational incentives to the municipality in pursuit of a negotiated agreement.

Operational issues that may be negotiated include:

  • hours of operation;
  • waste materials accepted;
  • nuisance control;
  • lighting;
  • vehicle routes and access;
  • aesthetic screening and fencing;
  • recycling efforts;
  • private well monitoring and replacement; and
  • post-closure site use.

Economic issues include:

  • payments to local governments for local costs of regulation;
  • fire control;
  • road maintenance;
  • payments in lieu of taxes;
  • economic protection of neighboring property owners for loss of property value; and
  • establishment of a local advisory committee.

If the parties are unable to reach a negotiated settlement, they may petition the Waste Facility Siting Board to issue a decision on the matter.

For more information, visit our Solid waste and Landfill pages.

Last revised: Friday September 13 2019