Third in a series
With high transmission capacity and adequate wind levels, southeastern Minnesota is poised to be one of the next hot spots for wind development, according to wind resource analysts.
“Almost all the way across is very good,” said Dan Turner, an analyst with Windustry, a Minneapolis-based wind advocacy group.
But as large-scale wind development moves from places like the sparsely populated Buffalo Ridge in Minnesota’s southwest corner to more densely settled areas like Goodhue County, what sorts of problems develop? Are people willing to live among wind turbines?
That question has taken on special bearing in Goodhue County, where the proposed Goodhue Wind project has sparked two years of heated public meetings. Opponents of the project say the 50 400-foot tall turbines would be sited too close to many neighboring homes.
Developers have countered that they have voluntarily agreed to 1,500-foot setbacks from homeowners not participating in their project, above the state-mandated 750 feet.
Both supporters and opponents are expected to make one final case to state regulators Thursday in St. Paul as the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission decides on the fate of the project.
Living in the shadow
Among those there will be Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, and Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa. In a recent letter, they called on Gov. Tim Pawlenty to speak out against the Goodhue Wind project, arguing that the region’s dense settlement and topography make it unsuitable for large wind development.
Those opposed to the project would be forced to “live within its shadow” against their will, they wrote.
In an interview with the R-E Monday, Kelly argued that the state takes a “cookie cutter” approach to the permitting of large wind projects, ignoring regional differences.
“They’ve already developed on the best areas,” he said. “Now, we’re encroaching on spaces that are maybe higher in population density.”
To correct the issue, he’s seeking legislation that would give increased control over permitting to local government bodies like townships and counties.
But not all area legislators agree.
Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said that giving too much control to local governments would result in hodgepodge development that limits the state’s ability to meet renewable energy goals. The state adopted a “25 percent by 2025” green energy goal in 2007.
He argued that under safe setbacks, people in more densely settled areas could and should be able to live near wind turbines.
“I actually think it’s a good thing that we’re trying to develop wind in places where we need the electricity,” he said.
‘Issue of annoyance’
As wind development has accelerated across the state – capacity jumped from 273 megawatts to 1,810 from 1999 to 2009 – state officials have struggled to come up with clear answers to questions about the impacts of wind turbines on people living within their footprint.
In early 2009, the state Office of Energy Security responded to concerns about the proposed Lakeswind Wind Power Plant in northwest Minnesota by commissioning a “white paper” from the Minnesota Department of Health evaluating possible health effects of wind turbines.
The report, titled “Public Health Impacts of Wind Turbines” and conducted by MDH toxicologists Carl Herbrandson and Rita Messing, found that annoyance from noise levels and “shadow flicker,” caused when turbine blades spin in front of the sun, were the biggest complaints from people living near the towers.
“It really is, in a lot of ways, an issue of complaints, an issue of annoyance,” Herbrandson told the R-E Tuesday.
He said people generall start complaining about noise around 35 to 45 decibels, comparable to a humming refrigerator.
According to noise models conducted by National Wind, the company that manages Goodhue Wind, 12 percent of the 482 homes in or near the project area would see noise levels between 40 and 45 decibels under “worst-case” conditions.
Ultimately, Herbrandson said, complaints are subjective and rely on a variety of factors, particularly if an individual is participating in a project or not. He said complaints tend to reduce with distance from turbines.
“As you move away from it, there’s a place where that stops. And that’s going to be a different place for everybody,” he said.
Supporters and opponents of the project are, predictably, divided on the health impacts.
National Wind senior wind developer Chuck Burdick said that annoyances have been reported, but aren’t any more severe than those associated with feedlots or other agricultural uses.
The company develops projects as far east as Ohio and has heard few complaints, he said.
He equated public criticism of the Goodhue Wind project over the past two years to “misinformation and fear.”
“The kinds of worst-case scenarios that opponents present are simply not represented by community’s experiences around the country,” he said.
Opponents, however, have repeatedly argued that Goodhue County’s population is simply too dense to support the scale of wind development Goodhue Wind proposes.
Marie McNamara of Belle Creek Township said the large towers would clearly affect the quality of life of her family and others living throughout the project’s area.
“They do affect people, and people don’t want to live with them,” she said.
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