If there's an iconic image of the new push for domestic green energy, it's the wind turbine photographed against a luminous horizon. Its sleek aerodynamic blades turn silently and steadily, providing happy Americans with clean, dependable energy.
But there's another image that's becoming increasingly associated with wind power, and that's its angry next-door neighbors. In fact, wind energy is fast becoming "the mother of all NIMBY wars," says Bob Kahn, head of Strategic Communications, a Seattle-based firm that helps wind farms gain permits.
These days, public meetings about wind farms draw crowds of concerned homeowners. A growing Internet movement against wind farms unites grassroots groups that want to block or at the least mitigate the impacts of local installations. Anti-wind-power Web sites share articles challenging the cost-benefit ratio and reliability of wind farms, along with complaints about deteriorating views and falling property values. Opponents seem eager to proclaim that wind-power arrays are anything but quiet, while some people say that their health has suffered since a wind farm moved in nearby.
Two years ago, a National Academy of Sciences report found that wind energy had become "surprisingly controversial.” Its benefits tend to be regional and even global, but its impacts are felt at a local level. Among the objections: shadow flicker, vibration, noise, blighted view, lighted towers at night, and the remote chance that a turbine will break or fling off a chunk of ice. There may be health impacts, too, according to Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician who is publishing an anecdotal study of 10 families, most of them in the Eastern U.S., who say they have suffered dizziness, nausea, insomnia and other ailments because they live near industrial wind turbines.
Part of the problem is that wind energy is the new kid on the land, and last year saw record growth in it because of federal subsidies totaling about $800 million, plus a host of tax incentives granted by states. But while the United States added about 8,300 megawatts of new wind energy in 2008 -- leading all other nations -- wind still generates only 1 percent of the country's energy. That amounts to 25,000 megawatts, or enough to power 7 million homes.
The amount of electricity produced by wind power is going to grow. Eight Western states now have standards requiring that utilities generate between 15 and 33 percent of their power from renewable sources within the next 15 years. Four Western states – California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado -- are already among the top producers of wind energy in the nation. What's more, Congress renewed wind tax credits this fall, and the economic stimulus package includes billions of dollars in green-energy tax breaks and loan guarantees.
Deciding on the site for a wind farm is becoming increasingly controversial. Unless a wind farm is proposed on federal land, rural counties are mainly responsible for permitting and regulation. But last November, in Washington, the state Supreme Court overruled Kittitas County, saying Horizon Wind Energy could build a wind farm there, even though commissioners had rejected the proposal. The sticking point was setbacks: The county wanted the turbines 2,500 feet from residences; Horizon said that made the project economically impossible.
"What it comes down to is the buffer," says Kahn, of Strategic Services. "There are disputes throughout the country about what is an appropriate buffer, especially around an inhabited residence that's a non-participant in the wind farm."
Nina Pierpont recommends a one-to-two-mile setback. Many wind developers have settled on a figure 1.5 times blade height, usually around 600 feet. Most jurisdictions in the United States require 1,000-to-1,500-foot setbacks, although Riverside County, Calif., mandates a setback of two miles. In northern New Mexico, residents whose homes are in the path of a proposed wind farm have petitioned the state to mandate 8-mile setbacks.
Wind developers don't always have a lot of choice about where to locate their turbines. They need strong, steady winds and easy access to the power grid. Often these are the locations that also feature scenic views, migrating birds and other wildlife. And even more frequently, they feature homeowners who don't want 124-foot blades perched atop 164-foot towers anywhere near them.
"The placement of wind farms is going to be a critical issue," says Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. "If we had started to get a solid clean energy economy under our feet 30 or 40 years ago, we wouldn't have the serious problems we have today. Now we're not in a win-win position. … people have to choose what's less bad."
Marty Durlin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is an assistant editor for the newsmagazine in Paonia, Colorado.