Talk of a wind farm has blown into the artsy community of Bisbee, the latest in a long list of cities across the country now mired in the clean-energy debate.
Some residents of the southeastern Arizona city support the renewable-energy source, while others don’t want to see or hear turbines, typically hundreds of feet tall, spinning on their hillsides.
The controversy highlights the dilemma faced by energy companies trying to pitch the inexpensive, non-polluting power source that, unlike many power plants, can’t be tucked out of sight.
But gaining acceptance for the renewable source is key as more states demand wind, solar and other alternative technologies to meet growing energy needs.
Arizona’s renewable-energy standard requires utilities to get 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025.
“It is unfortunate because this is supposed to be meeting the policy needs of the state, (but) . . . when you put that policy talk into action and build some wind projects, you get resistance, delay and lawsuits,” said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for wind and coal projects across the country.
Maisano works for Bracewell and Giuliani in Washington, D.C., and has represented Clipper Windpower of Carpenteria, Calif., a company that is studying the wind potential in the Mule Mountains near Bisbee.
“Wind power faces that same old challenge anything else faces – not in my backyard,” he said.
That may be especially true when people move great distances to out-of-the-way places like Bisbee, nearly a two-hour drive south of Tucson near the Mexican border.
Many people retire there, while others move for the tranquillity and moderate weather found at its 5,300-foot elevation, which is just high enough for pine trees and just low enough for cactuses.
Wind to be tested
Clipper, a turbine manufacturer and wind-farm builder, has applied to Cochise County to test the wind with nearly 200-foot-tall towers to determine whether it’s gusty enough in the Mule Mountains for a power plant.
The county notified two landowners near the test site, and those two December letters touched off the debate. Clipper hasn’t said much else about the project since then, like how many turbines it might install or where they could go.
“We are in the very preliminary stages of our project-feasibility studies,” spokeswoman Mary McCann-Gates said. “The first step is completion of the wind-resource assessment. From there, we can determine the feasibility of a project and . . . the potential size.”
Clipper’s application to the State Land Department seeks two years to conduct wind tests, although officials first wrote five to seven years on the application, then scratched it out.
Wind turbines make some noise, although modern designs like those that Clipper builds are designed to minimize the effect on homeowners, McCann-Gates said.
She diverted questions about noise with data from the American Wind Energy Association that indicate the noise from a wind turbine from 825 feet away is equivalent to the sound of a kitchen refrigerator.
“We absolutely understand the concerns people have because it is something different,” she said.
Bisbee’s is not the first wind dispute in the state; although, so far, Arizona doesn’t have any wind farms.
Proposals for northern Arizona projects have attracted similar controversy, and small, residential turbines have ignited full-blown policy debates in Flagstaff and Bullhead City.
Bisbee-area residents are conflicted.
“It’s hard to get a handle on it because you want to save the environment, but you’re destroying it to save it,” said Todd Bogatay, a local architect and sculptor who crafted an off-grid home in the hills north of Bisbee. “There’s got to be a better way.”
Bogatay’s eccentric hand-built home and guesthouse sit along a road cut years ago into the Mule Mountains for a failed development, which left the road in eroding disrepair.
He fears dozens of roads connecting the wind turbines and allowing service trucks to reach them will damage the landscape.
And the irony that his home is entirely powered by solar and small wind turbines isn’t lost on him, nor is it on other off-grid homeowners in the area.
Pamela Housh has woken up to beautiful sunrises and even a javelina or two outside her window overlooking the Mule Mountains.
After retiring from law enforcement in Colorado, she spent four years building her house by hand. It is complete with a solar-power system and rainwater collector on the roof. She even designed the bedroom window to catch the breeze and cool the place.
She worries that turbines catching the same breeze will ruin what she has worked for.
“I have my own solar power, so it won’t help me any,” Housh said.
If Clipper or anyone else builds turbines in the Mule Mountains, they certainly will be visible from the homes of Housh, Bogatay and dozens of other rural dwellers.
But Bisbee itself clings to hillsides in a nearby ravine and likely wouldn’t have a turbine in sight from downtown.
Residents unconcerned about their views are more open to the proposal, even if it affects the landscape.
Larry Elkins spends all his spare time photographing that landscape and sells his work in Bisbee art galleries.
“From an environmental standpoint, I’d love to see it,” he said of the wind farm. “It could impact the ability to photograph the land, but it can also be a subject in itself.”
Other artists in town also showed support.
“We can’t keep relying on other sources of energy,” said Sandra Corn, who crafts and sells screen prints. “We’ve all seen turbines while driving in Palm Springs and Texas. It takes my breath away when they come up on the horizon.”
Turbines are a better sight than coal mines and power plants, she said.
“What bothers me is people think other forms of energy are free,” she said. “The wind is free.”
Residents doing research
The lack of information from Clipper has led some residents to form their own conclusions.
Jim Alexander, a retired developer from California, was one of the landowners notified by the county that Clipper would test the wind within 1,500 feet of his property, a former ranch at the base of the Mule Mountains.
Alexander figures that, based on research from Northern Arizona University on the county’s wind potential, Clipper needs to build at least 40 turbines to make a profit.
He also is concerned because Clipper has applied to use state trust land, which could mean a bigger development on land he never expected would be developed.
He’d rather see a big solar project built somewhere, with less effect on his view.
“We’re all for alternative energy,” Alexander said. “But it’s a matter of where we do it and how we do it.”
Maisano, the energy-project spokesman from D.C., said he has heard that before.
“The land use will be greater if you consider solar,” Maisano said. “And that’s the thing. They’re always saying, ‘Don’t do coal, do wind.’
“And when you do wind, they say, ‘Don’t do wind, do solar.’ And when you do that, they say, ‘Just do energy conservation.’
“Unfortunately, that’s not how we function. We need a little of everything.”
The Arizona Republic
5 June 2008
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