Would you want to live near a wind farm?


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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

wind farms
molly cruz
molly cruz
Mar 18, 2009 12:04 AM
IT strikes me that judiciously placed wind farms might change weather patterns! IT also seems that the answer to global warming is mirrors to reflect the sunlight back into space. Then again it seems like a good idea to deflect incoming asteroids to the sun to keep it fueled. Hitching rides for everything from messages to life forms on passing comets might be smart too. Go with that flow.
"Wind Turbine Syndrome" Satire
faulty science
faulty science
Nov 10, 2009 11:48 AM
If you want to know more about wind power & NIMBY wars, check out WindWorks! Northwest, a pro-wind, anti-NIMBY group in the Pacific Northwest.

WindWorks! Northwest has made a short film about NIMBY attacks on a wind farm in Eastern Washington, and has most recently released a satirical piece about Dr. Pierpont (the doctor who "discovered" the so-called Wind Turbine Syndrome).

If you're up for a laugh, pay a visit to their website - www.wwnw.org - and enjoy the "Western Residence Compadre" radio theater performance!
Ten families?
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Nov 11, 2009 01:07 PM
Yeah, that's a *very* scientific study.
Blight in green clothing
Jim C.
Jim C.
Apr 30, 2010 12:55 AM
The amount of "occupied" acreage used by wind farms is much larger vs. the equivalent output of a conventional or nuclear power plant. The extreme height and movement of the blades adds to the visual insult in a way that's hard to quantify and rarely graces slick presentations.

There's no getting around the fact that wind turbines industrialize formerly natural or bucolic landscapes. They're not much different than turbines inside dams, except that the wind versions are smaller, higher up and far more numerous per installation. Note the hypocrisy of those who see wind as benign and hydroelectric as damnable (pun intended).

Those who think the visual blight is trivial are missing part of their souls. They are drones and automatons who don't respect a place's history. What's the point of life if we get "clean" energy but can't enjoy the simple experience of watching an unfettered sunset or enjoying silence in a rural area?

A timeless, non-industrialized view is priceless to many people, but the wind-pushers rarely care. Force them to LIVE on the lands they desecrate and they'd sing a different tune.
Re: Ten families
Jim C.
Jim C.
Apr 30, 2010 01:17 AM
It's easy to dismiss a single study offhand but I'm sure you never even looked at it. There are thousands of complaints around the nation from people who are stuck living near these noisy eyesores. The growing number of protests of planned installations is telling.

It's a very real problem with a large body of evidence and cannot be dismissed out of mindless apathy. If you need help finding the evidence, visit sites like WindWatch or WindAction (add suffix as needed). Plenty of videos, audio clips, town meeting excerpts, reports, etc. that can't be casually ignored.
In my face
Robert Greenman
Robert Greenman
Aug 04, 2010 06:03 PM
 for the past 20 years me and my have lived in the elk heights area,and loved where we live. Now a wind farm has moved in and has removed the desire for a family to want to buy my home. In hard times you could tap the equity of the home and get through the ruff times and still have some left,not any more. No jobs No money. Nuff said. Are home is in the Exstreme view zone and horizon has no policy for loss of whatever you want to call it, to the home owners, Yet they say they are in tune to the community, There not. Not one person ever spoke to me,I had to track them down just so I could the impact analysis of wind power projects on property values in the US. This thing is a joke there is no way you can travel across the US and have the impact numbers so close. East and west coast are not the same. Our state has no (RPS) along with 33 other states. Yes this wind farm was ramed down are throats,For what? maybe 35 or so jobs. You wuold think a 330 millon dollar project they would atleast go out and speak with the people that maybe impacted by there own impact study findings. The home owner is the one that takes the hit. We are a small group of people they found that get nothing from a group that has the money to say,Your right we burned you. HA HA. Gee thanks for caring guys. Our wind farm was built on the analysis from other states. It's not the value of the home,It's the desire to buy the home before and after the thing is built. read the impact analysis and the lbnl-2829e number on the web and look for your self. I ask my state rep. to draft a bill to help them play by the rules and not the money,Becuase we the people get ripped off. If any horizon people want to talk,I'm game Joy potter will not take any emails from me,Why I do not know? To small to think about maybe.