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for people who care about the West

Wind setbacks

Local governments grapple with where to put wind farms


For a while, it seemed that a controversial wind farm proposal in Washington's Kittitas County had gotten, well, a second wind. To satisfy county concerns, the developer reduced the size of the project by half and limited it to one contiguous property. For their part, county commissioners worked closely with the developer and created an ordinance to facilitate wind development. But when commissioners asked that the turbines be placed at least 2,500 feet from residences, the developer flatly refused, saying it made the project economically unviable. Wind company officials walked out of a May 2006 meeting, and commissioners subsequently denied the proposal.

"No one on the planning commission or the board of commissioners has a problem with the concept of wind energy," says Commissioner Mark McClain. "The question was, did this location (a relatively populous area north of Ellensburg) fit appropriate planning parameters? I believe it did not."

Although Washington allows local jurisdictions to create their own wind farm regulations, the state's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council can override them. 

The developer, Horizon Wind Energy, appealed to the council, initiating a Byzantine legal process in which Gov. Christine Gregoire sided with the wind farm. In November, the state's Supreme Court unanimously agreed that Horizon could proceed, overruling the county once and for all.

As more commercial wind farms are proposed for the West, tension mounts over where they should be located, and who should decide. There are no federal regulations about how to site wind farms. Not all states have siting councils, and so far there are no state commissions with ultimate regulatory authority over wind energy. Unless the proposal is on public land, where federal officials can decide, authority is relegated to local jurisdictions -- usually sparsely populated rural counties that often rely on the advice of wind developers to create ordinances. And there's a certain reluctance to over-regulate a renewable energy source.

The wind industry is seeing record growth because of technology improvements, federal subsidies totaling about $800 million per year and widespread state tax incentives. Last year, the U.S. added about 8,300 megawatts of wind energy. (The current total is about 25,000 megawatts, enough to power 7 million homes.) California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado are among the top wind energy-producing states in the nation. Eight Western states (including those four) now have standards requiring that utilities generate between 15 and 33 percent of their power from renewable sources within the next 15 years. This fall, Congress renewed vital wind tax credits, and the economic stimulus proposal making its way through Congress includes tens of billions of dollars in green energy tax breaks and loan guarantees.

Wind developers look for strong, steady winds and easy access to the power grid -- but such locations often have scenic views, birds and other wildlife, and people who don't want turbines nearby. Public meetings about wind farms draw scores of concerned homeowners. There are anti-wind-power Web sites with articles challenging its cost/benefit ratio, complaints about deteriorating views and falling property values, and first-person stories regarding health and noise issues. A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report found that wind energy is "surprisingly controversial" -- partly because its benefits tend to be regional and even global, whereas the costs are felt at a local level. Wind energy is fast becoming  "the mother of all NIMBY wars," says Bob Kahn, head of Strategic Communications, a Seattle-based firm that facilitates wind farm permitting.

In Villanueva, N.M., last fall, about 80 people came to a community meeting to ask questions about a wind farm proposed by Chicago-based Invenergy. Their primary concern was the issue of setbacks from residences. But the highway passing the potential site is a scenic corridor, and critics said that 124-foot blades atop 264-foot tall towers would blight the view. They were also worried about the area's sandhill cranes and bats. San Miguel County has not yet made a decision, but concerned residents have already petitioned the state to create an eight-mile setback requirement for any wind farm in New Mexico.

Most jurisdictions in the U.S. require only 1,000- to 1,500-foot setbacks (although Riverside County, Calif.,  mandates two miles). Kittitas County recommends half a mile. But some say that's not enough to avert possible health impacts.

If turbines are too close to homes, residents may experience shadow flicker, noise and low-frequency vibration. New York-based pediatrician Nina Pierpont claims that mega-turbines (1.5 to 3 megawatt) disrupt balance and equilibrium, and that bright lights on the huge towers interfere with sleep. Although Pierpont acknowledges that these effects are difficult to document, she recommends a 1.2-mile setback. Many wind developers have settled on a figure 1.5 times the tower/blade height, usually around 600 feet.

"What it comes down to is the buffer," says Kahn. "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."

"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, but in a position where people have to choose what's less bad."