An advisory council to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission has recommended new standards for wind turbines. Supporters say this will fix a broken patchwork of local regulations that’s earned the state a reputation as a bad one for the wind business. Objectors, however, say the proposed rules don’t do enough to protect nearby residents from the noise turbines produce.
The PSC, which regulates utilities in the state, is expected to forward a final draft of the rules by the end of this month to the state Legislature, where committees in the Senate and Assembly will have final review. Last year, Gov. Jim Doyle championed the law requiring the advisory council, called the Wind Siting Council, and the PSC to set limits on how tough local governments can be in regulating the development of wind farms.
The law, he said at its signing, “signals to the world that Wisconsin is in the wind business, and that we intend to be one of the leading states in production of wind energy.”
So far, the state lags behind its neighbors and the national average in producing wind energy. As of July, states were averaging 726 megawatts of wind energy capacity each, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Wisconsin’s capacity was just 449 MW, far behind Illinois (1,848 MW), Minnesota (1,797 MW) and Iowa (3,670), a national leader.
And it’s not because Wisconsin lacks the wind. The state ranked 18th in the country in wind resources, according to a 1991 U.S. Department of Energy study. Illinois placed 16th, Minnesota was 9th and Iowa came in 10th.
“The current patchwork of regulations has not been coherent and has restricted a lot of projects that could go forward,” says Peter Taglia, staff scientist at Clean Wisconsin, an environmental lobby group that has supported Doyle’s efforts to reign in local restrictions. If passed, the new standard “would supersede some of the local rules that are holding up some projects.”
Taglia argues that some of the rules, which have even held up small wind projects by local electric utilities, need tempering. “Wisconsin has this reputation in the wind business community as not a good place to do business,” he says.
Can wind turbines make you sick?
The Siting Council recommends (pdf) that turbines be placed at a distance at least 1.1 times their height from any occupied building, including residences. Noise (turbines create a “whooshing” sound) must be limited to 45 decibels at night and 50 decibels during the day – measured outside of buildings. Some communities in the state have enforced stricter setback requirements. (50 decibels is about the level of light traffic.)
The recommendations passed the Siting Council on an 11-4 vote. Dissenters included two real estate professionals, a member from the Union Township Plan Commission (which created its own regulations for wind turbines) and Larry Wunsch, a firefighter who owns a house in Fond du Lac County near wind turbines. Wunsch argued for much greater setbacks. He says his home is plagued by the constant noise produced by the turbines. In a minority opinion, the four argue the Siting Council’s membership, determined by the state law requiring its creation, was slanted in favor of wind industry interests.
The panel included representatives of wind energy developers, the energy industry, environmental groups, realtors, landowners who live near existing turbines, a UW expert on “the health impacts of wind energy systems,” two members of the public, one member representing town governments in the state and another representing county government. All were appointed by the PSC.
The objectors’ argue that the business and environmental representatives and even the two members of the public chosen (one was Michael Vickerman, president of the renewable energy group RENEW Wisconsin and the other was an attorney specializing in environmental law) downplayed noise concerns and related afflictions such as headaches and sleeplessness.
“When people are abandoning their homes, when they find it difficult or impossible to sell their homes, when symptoms experienced in the vicinity of wind turbines do not occur in other environments, it is not useful to dismiss such reports as inaccurate or hysterical,” they write.
“From a distance, wind turbines look cool, and they look like we’re doing something green,” says Doug Zweizig, the representative from the Union Township. “But for a significant number of people, their sleep is disturbed.”
Zweizig and the other dissenters say a long list of health conditions are associated with living near a wind turbine: headaches, sleep deprivation, anxiety, dizziness, chest palpitation, stress, depression, anger, nausea, exhaustion, irritability, lack of motivation, loss of short term memory, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), intestinal ulcers and reduced immunity system.
A growing number of wind farm objectors nationally are tying the turbines’ noise to a long list of health problems. A leading voice in the movement is Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician and author of the book “The Wind Turbine Syndrome,” which argues turbines create “acoustically toxic homes” and an “incongruous constellation of symptoms” similar to those described in the dissenting Siting Council opinion.
In a letter to the Council, State Health Officer Seth Foldy stated, “Current scientific evidence is not sufficient to support a conclusion that contemporary wind turbines cause adverse health outcomes” at the setbacks proposed by the Siting Council. He resists the dissenters’ opinion that turbines are keeping people awake. “Symptoms such as sleep disturbance and headache are common and caused by a wide variety of conditions,” he writes.
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