Wind energy is benign. Everyone says so. So why are so many potential windmill neighbors making noise?
Those neighbors are worth paying attention to because there are going to be a lot of them. The governor has pledged Wisconsin to getting 30% of its electricity from “renewable” sources by 2030. Dams largely don’t count, so a lot of that is wind. Right now, non-hydro renewable power amounts to 0.4% of the state’s juice.
So there will be a lot more windmills. Suppose we simply manage to hold power use even, something that’s almost never happened. That implies something like 3,300 new windmills going up around the state, if they’re the giant kind, unless we build lots of new power lines from Minnesota.
That’s great if you think windmills are kind of pretty. It’s not if they’re going up 1,000 feet from your house or right where your smart-growth plan was going to put a new subdivision. That’s happening in Chilton.
“There’s a huge battle going on here,” says Mayor William D. Engler Jr. His city, and Calumet County around it, are a test of how wind energy is going to proceed in Wisconsin.
At least two big wind farms are planned in the county. Wherever turbines go, they’ll be near someone: The place is scattered with homes on little lots built by people who came in search of countryside.
The county requires windmills to be at least 1,000 feet from homes. The turbines are about 400 feet tall with another 100 feet to the top of the rotor, so that seems awfully close. A panel has recommended raising the distance to 1,800 feet, but wind developers say that would kill their projects.
“I do favor wind energy,” says County Board Chairman Merlin Gentz, but the panel saw enough research suggesting that low-frequency vibrations and constant noise justify the setback. “No one,” he says, “is saying they should be as close as 1,000 feet.”
Except for the companies building them and environmentalists pushing them. Renew Wisconsin, a windmill lobby group, has been decrying Calumet County’s qualms for months now. In one letter to county officials, the group argued against any kind of environmental impact study since that “presumes that wind energy is an inherently harmful technology.” Neighbors say it could harm the daylights out of their resale value or their peace and quiet. Windmill backers pretty much tell them to get over it.
One group, Clean Wisconsin, ran a bus trip to an Illinois wind farm to convince Wisconsinites the turbines are benign. The response was “overwhelming positive,” said a spokesman. Not quite, say Engler and Gentz, not least because the Illinois site was far from homes, deep in farm country.
Interestingly, the windmill lobby’s attitude seems old school, a throwback to the get-out-of-the-way ethic under which nuclear power plants and big dams once were built. Society isn’t that brusque anymore, since putting up another power plant wasn’t that much of a national emergency.
Except for windmill people: They argue that this is an emergency, since they fear global warming. If that’s so, what’s inexplicable is why the greens refuse to consider nuclear power – as carbonless as windmills and a lot less spread out.
And because it’s an emergency (though not so dire as to build nukes), the greens feel justified in declaring, as state law now does, that local governments can’t regulate windmills for anything but health and safety. Cities’ plans and property values can’t figure into the equation. That the neighbors find their quality of life wrecked seems to sway them not at all. Of course, it’s easier to stay unswayed if you think the countryside should be for cornfields, not homes. We’re getting not just thousands of windmills but a new, harsher order of values.
It needn’t be so. Calumet County’s rule would let neighbors waive the 1,800-foot setback. Windmills could go up near homes if the builders asked, perhaps made a deal. Another idea would compensate existing neighbors if the turbine harms their resale value, an idea used with landfills.
These things raise the price of building wind power. That’s the breaks: Maybe windmills really don’t make economic sense in densely settled countryside. Perhaps they do. Either way, if wind energy is good – and it is – it’s worth doing in a way people can live with.
“You just try to resolve it,” says Engler, “in such a way that you both can get along.”
By Patrick McIlheran
Journal Sentinel editorial columnist
17 January 2008
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