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Got Questions? Wind Initiative Now Has Answers

Researchers respond to hundreds of queries from Manistee, Benzie

December 2, 2011 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Jim Dulzo/MLUI
  The new study found that large turbines, like those in McBain, Mich., can now produce competitively priced electricity.

Almost a year after Duke Energy proposed erecting 112 utility-scale wind turbines in four townships straddling the boundary between Manistee and Benzie Counties, officials there are mulling over the answers provided by researchers to hundreds of questions posed by local residents about the project.

Operating under the auspices of the Understanding Wind Initiative, the independent researchers, led by Macalester College’s Professor Roopali Phadke, released their answers on Oct. 6, in a 114-page report entitled Understanding Wind Initiative: Answers to Submitted Questions.

The report provides some answers to windpower questions that are relevant to many Michigan townships where energy companies may want to build wind farms.

The report was prepared at the request ofManistee County’s Alliance for Economic Success, which established the Understanding Wind Initiative as a way to help townships in Manistee and Benzie Counties deal with the complicated and sometimes contentious questions raised by windpower development.It aims to employ trained researchers and scientific evidence to help guide townships’ planning and zoning for such development.

The UWI report makes several crucial points.

First, township ordinances regarding commercial wind development cannot be so restrictive that they effectively ban such development. However, townships do have significant authority in dictating the size of turbines allowed, where they can be placed, and how far they are set back from residences.

The UWI report also clearly indicates that, despite claims to the contrary, commercial wind power is cost competitive with other sources of power generation.

“In general, the price of wind energy is not nearly as volatile as the price of energy from fossil fuels,” the report states, adding that “wind energy, because it is produced domestically and is a renewable resource, does not have comparable extreme price fluctuations.”

The report refutes the idea that providing subsidies to wind developers is somehow unusual or unfair.

“The subsidies that wind energy receives are dwarfed by the total subsidies received by fossil fuels,” the report states. “Because the federal government has always subsidized energy production through research and development, tax credits, loan guarantees, and liability limitations, it is impossible to grasp what the cost of any energy technology would be without subsidies.”

And, the report found that commercial wind power could be a legitimate option in developing a strategy to provide in-state power for Michigan.

“Michigan is currently ranked 14th in the country for onshore and offshore wind potential,” the report states. “Wind energy has the potential to power 71 percent of Michigan’s electricity.”

The UWI researchers categorized the more than 200 questions into 38 different categories. Their responses included many references and links to the most current and relevant studies addressing these issues, but stopped well short of offering any specific guidance to township officials about what to include in an ordinance.

Many of the questions focused on impacts that might occur to neighbors and the community and included categories such as Sound, Health and Safety, Setbacks, Tourism, Property Values, Decommissioning, Economic Impact, and Job Creation.    

Other questions from residents focused on whether wind is a viable source of energy, how the technology is subsidized, protections townships can provide, and tax issues.

Some Q’s and A’s

The following are edited excerpts from the Understanding Wind Initiative’s draft Answers to Submitted Questions.

Question: Can townships enact a noise ordinance to cover all industry?

Answer: In Michigan, a township can enact a noise ordinance that impacts all applications/proposals in that same township. Townships that come together to create a joint master plan may impact developers operating in more than one township.

Q: What are the State of Michigan’s recommended ordinance limits on sound pressure levels related to wind turbines?

A: Because the State of Michigan has not issued legislation governing the siting of utility scale wind farms, local governments have flexibility in creating wind energy ordinances. In 2005 the state issued siting guidelines that recommended a decibel level of 55 db that should not be exceeded for more than three minutes of every hour measured at the property line. A recent 2011 study by MSU researchers urged lowering acceptable noise levels to 40 decibels after concluding that there could be potential health risks with the lower frequency noise created by utility-scale wind turbines.

Q: Is there evidence of hearing damage directly caused by proximity to wind turbines?

A: There is no evidence that wind turbines create noise that causes hearing damage....Even when (a) listener is standing very close to a wind turbine, they will still not be at risk for hearing loss.

Q: In Blaine Township there are areas zoned residential or that are predominantly residential. What should be the setback from the residential areas so residents are not impacted by noise, both audible and low frequency?

A: When creating zoning ordinances related to wind energy projects, distance setbacks are not used to lessen the effects of wind turbine noise. Instead, governments create noise limits. Setbacks are used to reduce any visual annoyance and safety hazard.

Q: What does the scientific literature say about the health/mental effects of shadow flicker?

A: Shadow flicker is a relatively well-understood wind energy phenomenon. When rotating blades cast a shadow over a building, the changing in light intensity is called shadow flicker. This usually occurs for a period in the evening or morning when the sun is at a low angle in the sky. Shadow flicker does not occur on cloudy days or when the turbine is not operating....Current research suggests that the risk to human health from shadow flicker is quite minimal.

Q: Does living with a wind turbine really affect people’s health and safety when compared with normal, everyday environmental factors?

A: In general, living near a large wind turbine has fewer documented, general health risks than living near other kinds of electricity generating facilities, like a coal plant. Wind turbines do not emit carbon dioxide or other pollutants into the air when generating electricity. There is evidence that people who live near busy highways, oil and gas facilities, and airline flight paths are more likely to develop certain health problems than those who do not, but the noise generated by wind turbines is much quieter than most of these sources. It appears that the majority of people who live near wind turbines do not experience adverse health effects, but there is a significant minority of people who do complain about wind turbines, and more research is needed in order to understand these complaints.

Q: What type of authority do townships have to regulate and control wind farm developments?

A: Townships have broad authority to regulate the use of land and structures including windmills through zoning....In general, the zoning power is used to regulate land uses and not the activities themselves, although the impacts or risks from activities of a land use may be considered in establishing restrictions and standards. All restrictions on wind farms in a zoning ordinance must be reasonable and rationally related to a legitimate government interest such as protecting the public health, safety or general welfare.

Zoning is also subject to other applicable limitations. For example, if the regulation of windmills is different or more stringent than the regulation for other similar uses, then there must be a reasonable justification for treating windmills differently. Moreover, the township cannot ban windmills, or impose regulations so restrictive that they have the effect of banning windmills unless the township determines that there is no land in the township that is suitable for a windmill or that there is no demonstrable need for windmills. In addition, a local zoning ordinance cannot conflict with state or federal law, permit something state law prohibits, or regulate a concern that state law so fully regulates that it preempts local zoning.

Restrictions that might be adopted include minimum setback distances between a windmill and the road or neighboring properties, limitations on height, limitations on sound levels, and requirements that the windmill be designed in a manner that addresses certain safety or environmental concerns.

Q: Should both counties have the same elements in their ordinances to address similar problems if they arise?

A: The specifics of the ordinance are based on the uniqueness of each community and should reflect sound scientific evidence, best practices, and public input. But, by coordinating various aspects of the ordinances between municipalities, you can achieve a regional approach to regulating land use. A regional approach to regulating land use erases municipal boundaries and considers regional uniqueness, assets, opportunities and barriers.

Q: Who determines the appropriate setback for the placement of a turbine by a lake, house, etc. … township officials or Duke Energy? Should those setbacks be uniform across the counties?

A: The State of Michigan has created guidelines (concerning) the distance between all utility-scale wind turbines and adjacent private property to be at least the height of the turbine itself, and the distance between on-site, smaller scale turbines and property lines be at least 1.5 times the height of the turbine. This is a recommendation, but townships can create their own zoning restrictions. This is described in the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth’s “Siting Guidelines for Wind Energy Systems.”

Q: Are there studies that look at areas where tourism is a factor?

A: There are multiple studies that have been undertaken regarding the observed and modeled impacts of wind farms on tourism. However, there have been no extensive studies over time of a wind farm on tourism. One study reports on a survey which asked Delaware beach visitors if offshore wind turbines would affect their vacationing habits, and the results indicate that more than 70% of people say that they would not change which beach they visited and more than 60% said they would be likely to visit a new beach in order to see the offshore wind farm… A Scottish survey of tourists suggests that wind farms would have little impact on local tourism and an Australian report concludes the same…While this body of work points to little impact on tourism, experiences are likely to vary place to place. It is important to note both Scotland and Australia already have many wind farms, so tourists have likely seen them more often than they have in the United States.

Q: I would like to see a compilation of all the studies done on the effects (of wind farms) on property values. There is so much floating around, I don’t know what to believe.

A: The impacts of wind turbines on nearby property values are hotly contested. It is difficult to identify studies that have been conducted by a research group from a neutral source of funding....

A 2009 study by the Lawrence Berkeley Lab in California analyzed properties near multiple wind farms and found no link between distance from wind farms and property values, but the authors acknowledge that individual properties could still be affected in some cases. A 2010 study of a large wind farm in Illinois came to a similar conclusion. Preliminary research in Britain and Australia has shown no significant change in property values near wind farms compared to property values further away from wind farms.           

In contrast, a September 2009 study by Appraisal Group One, a condemnation appraisal consultant firm, conducted an opinion survey of realtors in Dodge and Fond Du Lac counties in Wisconsin. They found property values declined 12 to 47 percent from 2006 to 2009, depending on the proximity of turbines within an existing wind farm region.

None of these studies were published in a peer-reviewed economics or finance journal.

Two more recent studies were conducted in Illinois. Hinman’s 2010 study, “Wind Farm Proximity and Property Values”, looked at the effect of Twin Groves Wind Farm, with 240 turbines, on nearby property values in McLean County, Illinois. The study found that property value impacts vary based on the different stages of wind farm development. When the wind farm was initially announced, property values near the prospective wind farm site sold for less than those located elsewhere. However, during the operational stage of the wind farm project, property values rebounded and soared higher in real terms than they were prior to wind farm approval…

Another recent study is Carter’s 2011 “The Effect of Wind Farms on Residential Property Values in Lee County, Illinois” which also utilized a hedonic price model to assess the impacts on 1,298 real estate transactions from 1998 to 2010…The analysis indicates that residential properties located near wind turbines in Lee County have not been affected by their presence…

Heintzelman and Tuttle’s 2011 “Values in the Wind: A hedonic analysis of wind power facilities,” study, which evaluated 11,369 properties in upstate New York over a period of 9 years, found a significant and negative impact of wind turbines. The authors of this study found that properties within one mile of a wind turbine experience a drop in value ranging from 7% to 14%. The results of this study are markedly different from previous studies, which according to the authors is due to the use of methodology that better controls for analysis bias...

There are no extensive studies of the effect on property values in western Michigan. None of the above studies focus on property value impacts in a resort and tourism based economy.

Q: Can wind compete with coal or nuclear without a subsidy?

A: In general terms, Michigan derives 60 percent of its energy from coal, and as coal is not found in large quantities within Michigan, the state spends $2.6 billion annually securing coal energy from other states and countries. Similarly, Michigan derives 26 percent of its energy from nuclear sources and exports $696 million annually to secure nuclear energy.

Wind, on the other hand, is found in abundance within Michigan’s borders, but only currently supplies .3 percent of electricity in Michigan. In terms of environmental impacts, coal emits mercury, carbon dioxide, and other gasses which, as they accumulate, can have negative consequences for human health, ecosystem health, and can alter the composition of the atmosphere. Though nuclear energy doesn’t pose the same emission problems, it does generate toxic radioactive waste...In comparison, wind energy does not emit any harmful gasses, does not produce toxic waste, and is renewable instead of extractive.

The federal government subsidized all major energy markets through direct expenditures, tax credits, and investments in the research and development of energy technologies. Wind, nuclear, and coal are also subsidized through these three avenues. For example, wind energy receives federal tax credits based on the kWh of energy produced, the upfront cost of wind energy development, or the property values of development sites. Coal is subsidized through coal royalty payments, tax credits for nonconventional fuels, and a handful of other tax credits, development subsidies, and research and development grants for coal capture technology.

Q: Is there any real danger to wildlife? What about migrating birds?

A: It is widely understood that wind turbines do demonstrate some danger to flying birds and bats, but studies have shown that in relation to other anthropogenic activities, wind farms present a substantially lower risk. In the meantime, much scientific research is currently being done on the most appropriate ways to reduce and mitigate the harmful effects. For a summary of the issue and a description of the research that is being undertaken, refer to the “Wind Turbine Interactions with Birds, Bats and Their Habitats: A Summary of Research Results and Priority Questions.” The report is available by clicking here.

Click here to read our roundup of township windpower zoning activity in Manistee and Benzie Counties.Glenn Puit is a policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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