Wind setbacks

Local governments grapple with where to put wind farms


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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."

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