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Statewide Standards for Windmills?

Walker’s bill sparks debate over local control

June 11, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Representative Howard Walker wants to see more wind turbines in Michigan.

Earlier this spring, about 50 people gathered in Traverse City to discuss the future of wind-generated electricity in Michigan.

The meeting was called by State Representative Howard Walker, a Traverse City Republican, who has proposed a bill that would establish statewide zoning standards for commercial wind turbines. House Bill 4649 would limit how noisy the big machines would be to nearby residents, and requires them to be set far back from homes, roads, and property lines.

Representative Walker sees significant economic potential for generating energy with wind power in jobs-starved Michigan. The state is the nation’s fourteenth windiest, capable of producing 65 billion wind-driven kilowatt-hours of electricity each year or enough to power 1.9 million households.

Yet, unlike California, Texas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and New Mexico — the top five wind-power states — Michigan has yet to really put wind to work. The state will have just 10 large-scale wind turbines operating by year’s end — a fraction of what any of those top five states already have.

But the idea of helping wind and other renewable power sources grow is gaining traction in Lansing. In addition to Representative Walker’s efforts, State Representative Chris Kolb, an Ann Arbor Democrat, has proposed bills that, among other things, require utilities to draw at least 15 percent of their power from renewables like wind and solar power, and offers income and property tax deductions for homeowner that install small-scale systems.

But when a company starts talking about building a wind farm in Michigan, a passionate, determined group of nearby residents often shows up at township meetings, claiming that wind power is bad, at least if it’s located in their community. They insist that turbines ravage bird populations, annoy neighbors with noise and flickering shadows from spinning blades, interfere with TV reception, drive down property values, and ruin beautiful vistas. While Representative Walker and wind advocates point to both research and practical experience that says proper siting can solve those problems, most wind opponents remain adamant.

Mr. Walker believes that wind power should be a legitimate, “by right” land use, just like dairy farms, housing, shopping malls, gas stations, and factories. And, seeing that the state’s 1242 townships — which currently have the right to regulate turbines — would, if left to their individual decisions, almost certainly produce wildly differing regulations, he believes statewide standards are necessary for getting more turbines spinning.

“There’s nothing a business hates more than unpredictability,” said Mr. Walker, referring to the regulatory uncertainty that reigns over wind power.

Who’s in Charge?
Many people who attended Representative Walker’s April 21 meeting in Traverse City objected to what they said are his bill's attacks on local control of a new land use. Tim Johnson, who chairs the Centerville Township Planning Commission, which is weighing a proposal for a large wind farm in Leelanau County, told Mr. Walker that he opposes the bill for those reasons.

Mr. Johnson, who has a wind turbine in his backyard, and his fellow planning commissioners have formed a citizen committee to craft a commercial wind turbine ordinance for their township. He thinks wind turbines should be regulated by those who will be directly affected by them.

But John Hull, zoning administrator in nearby Acme Township, supports Mr. Walker’s bill. Michigan may need statewide standards, he says, to develop wind power if local communities take a not-in-my-backyard stance against tall turbines.

“It’s a classic free-rider problem” said Mr. Hall. “We would be better off collectively if we developed renewable, non-polluting energy, but each of us benefits individually if renewable energy is developed elsewhere, which means that very little renewable energy is developed at all.”

Representative Walker said he is willing to rework his bills to incorporate more local control, which could reassure many opponents that the state or a developer cannot force a poorly designed wind farm down a community’s throat. The two bills he originally introduced (they have since been consolidated into a single bill) did not allow local governments to block turbines, provided that they met the noise level and setback requirements. A new draft allows townships to set aside 10 percent of their land as “turbine free” and requires wind developers to post a bond that would pay for the removal of non-operational turbines.

But Jim Schwantes, a professional planner and vice chair of the Centerville Township planning commission, said more detailed criteria is needed to determine which areas are suitable for wind development, and which are not.

Jim Lively, the Michigan Land Use Institute’s planner, suggested another way to maintain local control of wind development while streamlining the approval process.

“Wind power and agriculture are very compatible rural uses because they do best in areas without a lot of houses,” said Mr. Lively. “Townships already use zoning to determine areas that are most appropriate for agriculture. If this legislation were to ensure that farmers in designated agricultural districts have the right to erect wind turbines, it would continue to respect local control while supporting farming.”

Indeed, wind farms could support Michigan’s agricultural sector and economy as well as the environment. The turbines would provide extra income to farmers, who would still be able to plant and harvest crops right up to the base of the turbine, while discouraging the residential sprawl that consumes some 60,000 acres of Michigan farmland each year. A mature wind industry would be a breath of fresh air for the manufacturing sector as well, as demand for turbine parts and mechanical expertise rises. Wind power could generate over 8,000 Michigan jobs, if it were fully developed, according to a 2004 report by the Renewable Energy Policy Project, a Washington-based alternative energy advocacy group.

Wind, Coal, and Free Markets
Opponents of turbines and Mr. Walker’s bills raise objections that range from the economic to the aesthetic to the environmental.

Some appeal to free-market ideology. They argue that the federal wind energy production tax credits that are crucial to building more turbines prop up an industry that would collapse without them. They say that wind power should be required to turn a profit without government help.

“Let the market decide,” Mark Zimanek, a resident of Centerville Township who vehemently opposes a proposed wind farm there, recently said after a community meeting. “It works.”

But America’s market-based economy is chock full of subsidies for corn, dairy products, mortgages, and every major source of energy, including coal, natural gas, and oil. All of these subsidies, argue wind power advocates, are market distortions — people would eat, drink, drive, and live differently without them. So it hardly makes sense, say advocates, to dismiss wind simply because it’s yet another subsidized industry.

Wind advocates also point out that the “price” of power goes beyond paying the electricity bills each month. Consumers also “pay” for the pollution generated by power plants, in the form of asthma, birth defects, and rising health insurance premiums. This is what economists refer to as an externality — a cost that doesn’t show up on a price tag or an electricity bill.

A typical 500-megawatt coal plant is loaded with externalities. It doesn’t just sell 3.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, enough to power a city of about 140,000 people each year. Annually, it also produces 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, the main ingredient in acid rain, which damages forests, lakes and buildings. It spews 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide, a major ingredient in both acid rain and smog. It releases 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, the leading cause of global warming.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, that yearly list also includes 220 tons of smog-causing hydrocarbons; 720 tons of poisonous, climate-warming carbon monoxide; more than 300,000 tons of landfill-clogging ash and sludge; 225 pounds of arsenic, 114 pounds of lead, four pounds of cadmium and other toxic heavy metals, including mercury; and even traces of uranium. If the cost of dealing with the health and environmental damage caused by those byproducts—the cost of the externalities—were included in the price of coal, then wind power, subsidized or not, would win in a walk, advocates argue.

In fact, wind is beginning to win even without counting the externalities. The Los Angeles Times reported early this year that the rising cost of natural gas and coal are leading power companies in three wind-rich states — Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas — to charge more for conventional power than for wind power.

Controlling Noise and Shadow
Although wind turbines are easier on human health and the environment than a coal plant, that doesn’t mean that they don’t affect their neighbors. Wind turbines have externalities too — but those externalities are much less severe and much easier to reduce.

One is noise: Some people who live close to large wind turbines complain of disrupted sleep and concentration from the repetitive swoosh the turning blades make. But even the noise from an older turbine, like the one just west of Traverse City owned and operated by Traverse City Light and Power, is faint enough that, from several hundred feet away, it is drowned out by cars cruising along the adjacent highway. It’s an externality, but one that careful site choice can eliminate.

The same is true of the flickering shadows that spinning blades can cast on a residence for a few minutes during a particular few days of every year. Siting turbines far enough away from homes can solve the problem.

And birds? Even the Audubon Society supports well-sited wind projects that avoid migratory flyways and fragile habitats. 

"The National Audubon Society supports renewable energy, including wind power, as renewable energy has a lower overall impact on the environment," wrote Erica Barton, the media manager at the Audubon Society, in an email. "However, it is crucial that appropriate reviewing agencies thoroughly assess potential impacts of wind power projects on wildlife. This is essential to ensure that facilities are designed and sited to minimize harm to birds, other wildlife and their habitat." 

The American Wind Energy Association would add that wind farms kill fewer birds than tall buildings, clear windows, cars, and housecats.

Another oft-cited externality of wind turbines are property values.

A 2003 study conducted by the Renewable Energy Policy Project, a Washington-based nonprofit, and funded by the Department of Energy, packed a real surprise. The study, based on 25,000 property sales in ten paired communities, considered the effect of wind farms on property values. Each pair of communities was geographically and demographically similar, and each pair included one community with a wind farm and one without. Properties within five miles (i.e., within sight of) wind turbines held their value as well as, and usually better than, properties that were not near wind turbines.

However, the study does not say how properties adjacent or very close to wind turbines fared. Anecdotal evidence includes both horror and success stories, suggesting another large scale study. Perhaps minimizing noise or shadow flicker would safeguard property values.

In cases where a nearby turbine can be shown to decrease property values, it would be reasonable for the turbine operator to compensate property owners, even if they do not own the land under the machine.

Carolyn Kelly was raised by economists. She is also the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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