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Turbine Guide Author: Let Science Lead Way

Klepinger says reasonable setbacks solve most windfarm challenges

February 7, 2011 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  General Electric says that, from 1,500 feet away, its wind turbines are quieter than a refrigerator’s hum. Click here to enlarge photo

Mike Klepinger spent a lot of time thinking about the Great Lakes and windpower development before his wife’s career moved their family to Portland, Ore. He was staff director of the Great Lakes Offshore Wind Council for three years; before that, he worked at Michigan State University Extension, in Lansing, at the Michigan Sea Grant program for fifteen years.

Sea Grants funds many projects that seek to protect the water quality, integrity, fisheries, wildlife, and shoreline of the Great Lakes.

Mr. Klepinger, who, we discovered during our interview, is a dues-paying MLUI member, began his public service career as a land-use planner in Alaska, in the 1970s. He is no stranger to the controversy that even the seemingly smallest community issue can create.

His last major MSUE project before staffing the offshore wind council was to write the MSUE Bulletin, Michigan Land Use Guidelines for Siting Wind Energy Systems, based on work by the Michigan Public Service Commission’s Wind Working Group (WWG).

The WWG realized that most township and county officials have little experience in or expertise about wind turbines. It also saw that having different turbine siting standards for each of Michigan’s almost 1,800 local jurisdictions would create headaches for companies trying to build projects, local officials trying to figure out how to regulate them, and engaged residents trying to figure things out.

The WWG assembled a large group of wind industry officials, environmentalists, MPSC staff, electric utility personnel, and academics and spent more than a year writing zoning guidelines. They do not have the force of law, and officials are not required to consider them.

We spoke with Mr. Klepinger by phone while doing research for our recent news article about wind turbines, infrasound, and turbine setbacks. We wanted to know, given his background, how communities can have civil conversations about such new kinds of development.

As with many other zoning issues, discussions about wind farms center around where not to build them, and how far they should be from buildings and people.

“Setbacks was one important issue” when the WWG was creating its turbine guidelines, Mr. Klepinger told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, “as well as how to deal with shadow flicker, ice shedding, and sound issues. Dealing with the setback question helped resolve, in our minds, a whole bunch of different concerns.”

We began with a discussion of low frequency, mostly inaudible noise—infrasound, Some people claim infrasound presents serious problems that can only be solved via mile-plus setbacks. In Michigan, most wind development experts agree, that would stymie most utility-scale windpower development.

Great Lakes Bulletin News Service: When you composed these guidelines, did you give much thought to infrasound as a possible annoyance or health risk? Did you see much in the literature then?

Mike Klepinger: We did look at it. There was almost nothing in the literature. So what is needed, and I’m sure it’s MSUE’s policy, is to keep updating that whole part of the guidelines. As I wrote in the publication at the time, turbine sound is going to be an issue, and we don’t have enough info about it—especially infrasound.

The decision to use a 55-db sound-level limit to turbine noise at a project’s property line was reasonable at the time, and I still think it is. We wanted to come up with something that communities could begin with. We discussed 55 db carefully, and tried to deal with it in relation to an area’s ambient [i.e., normal, everyday] sound level.

We couldn’t find studies connecting health problems and sound. We did find some nuisance complaints.

I think that is really where it’s going to shake out as we get results from future studies: A minority of people in a given community will find turbine sound to be a nuisance. It won’t be a “public health” thing, but it might be seen as a “public welfare” thing. The audible sound is a nuisance to some people, just like looking at cell towers is a nuisance to some people, just like garbage trucks at 6 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m. is a nuisance to some people. Some things are a pain in the neck to some people, but not for everyone.

So, each jurisdiction needs take its community’s temperature on such things and do the best they can.

Did you look very closely at Nina Pierpont’s work about wind ‘turbine noise syndrome’?

Mr. Klepinger: I have read it. I think it is flawed in a number of ways. Scientists use the term “methodological flaws” to slice and dice this kind of research. I agree with critics of her work who note her methodological limitations include: small sample size, lack of exposure data, lack of controls, and selection bias. It [her research] is not repeatable or useful.

The idea of basing public law on it [her research] is nonsense, actually. There was no peer review prior to her self-publication, and recently a panel of qualifiedscientists tried to draw meaning from it, and they didn’t find it useful either.

That would be the scientific panel created by the Canadian Wind Energy and American Wind Energy Associations to review Pierpoint’s book. Of course, whenever you invite industry into a panel, the whole panel becomes suspect. People say they couldn’t possibly be operating scientifically. But you look at the who’s who on this list of experts and you kind of have to give the industry an A-plus for trying to make the panel objective. They are not the only critics [of Ms. Pierpont’s work].

Nina Pierpont’s work is not good science. As I recall, she interviewed 38 people who had previously complained about health effects they blamed on wind farms—and they continued to complain. It doesn’t prove any connection to me. It just doesn’t work for me as a scientist. The scientific evidence we have right now does not demonstrate a causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.

I’m not a Ph.D, but I have a [professional] history of trafficking in good science. I worked for many years at MSU interpreting scientific work for lay audiences and policy makers, the media, schoolteachers. I did that every day for 15 years and I think I know a good study when I see it.

I’m sure some will say, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he’s not an acoustic scientist’. Or,He’s all in favor of wind.’ But if you look at what I wrote four years ago [in the turbine guidelines], you’ll see I took a really straight, non-biased look at the science, misconceptions, and myths presented at that time. I tried to be very fair and objective as an Extension person. The only thing I advocated was ‘good science.’

I used to stand up and do these public presentations about wind turbine siting.

I would say, ‘As the earth gets more crowded, we face more tough decisions. You know, these turbines do kill birds. Some say thousands, some say none, but the science says they kill an average of slightly more than two birds per year.

‘Have you seen the data on how many birds your average outdoor cat kills? I’ve been a bird watcher my whole life, and I hate to see any bird die, but I think you make that choice every time you turn your light switch on.’

Coal carries unacceptable costs—to me—and the costs of wind power are actually lower in the long term. We’re poisoning the earth needlessly.

No matter what energy source we select, we are giving up something. We ought to do what we can to increase our use of renewable energy and decrease our use of carbon-based energy.

Are you aware of any place where there is a one-mile setback—the distance those who fear infrasound’s effect are pushing for? What would such a setback do to windpower development?

Mr. Klepinger: I think a one-mile setback from any property line or structure is tantamount to exclusionary zoning. I don’t think that will pass any kind of legal test. It is O.K. to buffer, but not to exclude a use.

I’m not aware of any jurisdiction that has a one-mile setback in the U.S., but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is being tried. It may have been tried and not even contested in some places. The wind companies would just decide to go elsewhere. So you end up with an unenforceable provision that effectively bars development, which is exactly what some people want.

You know, we have laws that require a jurisdiction to make provisions for porn shops, which I personally find to be nuisances, which may not be good for the welfare of our community. But we have to provide for all legal uses, because that is just the American way. I believe that those big setbacks will run into that legal problem head-on when wind developers want to bother to fight about it.

There are plenty of places that want wind around the world and the country, and they are going to reap the benefits when communities that don’t want wind give off certain signals through their zoning codes.

It’s like offshore wind. We should encourage it, in some of the right places. There are so many places around the planet that will welcome offshore development, it’s difficult to get investors to put up millions in the U.S when the low-hanging fruit—areas with good wind, shallow waters, and proximity to the power grid—areeverywhere else, too.

Why screw around with places like Cape Wind [a hotly disputed wind development off the Massachusetts coast] when a company can go to Portugal and do business there?

That kind of thing is happening on land, too. Giving off those alarmist, negative signals is unfortunate, because there are a lot of people who want to see wind development here, for all sorts of good reasons.

Is it worthwhile to do some serious research on infrasound’s physical effects?

Mr. Klepinger: Yes. That would be something that everyone would learn from. I really don’t know whether there will be findings of any impact, but I suspect there will not be. It’s okay to keep looking, though; you never know for sure that you are not doing something. As long as people are concerned about infrasound, we need to stay on it.

But doesn’t that argue for a moratorium while research continues?

Mr. Klepinger: No, absolutely not. We are all doing, all the time, what is called ‘adaptive management.’ We have to accept each chunk of knowledge that we have, and make each decision based on what we know today.

We know for sure that fossil fuels are causing mercury and particulate emissions, acid rain, pulmonary and lung problems, asthma, and so forth—for sure. We don’t know for sure that wind systems aren’t causing significant population losses for bird and bats, but from what we’ve studied over the years, we don’t think they are.

We don’t know for sure that wind turbines aren’t causing damage to people, but, again, from what we’ve studied, we don’t think they are. We cannot sit and do nothing because we are trying to solve another, very uncertain set of problems.

That is the way all environmental science goes. We are never completely sure that we are not causing harm with our introduction of a new chemical or a new plastic or a new product. But you cannot stop when the known benefits outweigh unknown, unlikely costs.

Are you aware of any serious complaints about infrasound effects from other, now-established wind farms in Michigan?

Mr. Klepinger: Yes.

There were complaints from the person living right next to I-75, near Mackinac City, near to where Michigan’s second and third big turbines were built. I’ve stood in their front easement, checking out the sound a number of times over the years. There were many different types of sound coming at me, making it difficult for me to hear anything from the windmills at all. But I sure as hell could hear the highway. It did not matter what time of day it was or if it was windy or barely blowing when the blades were turning.

Background noise, ambient sound levels, are useful to know when you are evaluating complaints.

The only other complaint I’ve heard of from Michigan is from some people in the Ubly area, where there are 46 turbines. There have been some complaints over there. But as someone who’s been a planner and zoning administrator, I know that, no matter what the project is, there will always be someone who sees something that’s new as a big nuisance.

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s managing editor. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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