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Possible Columbia ordinance aims to regulate wind energy

COLUMBIA – Nearly a year after the installation of its first wind turbine, Columbia has yet to gain another.

When Colin Malaker installed a vertical axis windmill to help power his dentistry office on Buttonwood Drive, the city realized the device wasn’t addressed in its zoning laws.

Malaker continued his project, and the city drew up an exhaustive draft ordinance. Perhaps too exhaustive, if you ask members of the Environment and Energy Commission.

Commission members fear a restrictive city ordinance could further deter Columbia residents and businesses from pursuing wind energy. They are drafting several revisions before the commission’s July 26 meeting. The ordinance would then go before the Planning and Zoning Commission in early August, city planner Matthew Lepke said.

Installing a wind turbine has long been a pursuit for clean energy advocates with money to spare rather than an affordable alternative. Rising fossil fuel costs and tax incentives are narrowing that disparity, though. The commission wants an ordinance that advances that trend.

The existing one spans too wide a range, commission member Tom O’Connor said. It puts the same limits on single-watt windmills as it does 100 kilowatt ones.

“That makes far too many hurdles for people wanting to pursue small-scale wind,” O’Connor, also a member of the Water and Light Advisory Board, said. “It’s more restrictive than necessary and would essentially eliminate small-scale wind energy in Columbia.”

O’Connor andfellow commission member Dick Parker are drafting revisions to the ordinance that would allow exemptions for small-scale turbines capable of fewer than 10 kilowatts.

Restrictions on bigger turbines would depend on their location.

A downtown location would be a great place for a windmill, O’Connor said. It would be showcased there, and Columbia’s tallest buildings are downtown. The Fifth and Walnut garage even came up at the commission’s June meeting as a spot where a windmill would generate a lot of energy.

However, the draft ordinance wouldn’t allow that. It prohibits a windmill in any part of downtown within the Community Improvement District.

A windmill atop the city’s highest buildings could generate more electricity than a freestanding residential turbine. It also likely would be far enough from public view that it would void several other sections of the ordinance aimed at preserving the street-level environment.

Lepke agreed that downtown buildings would offer spots to capture the most wind energy and that the city wanted to hold off on allowing turbines there to preserve the downtown atmosphere.

“What we’ve found, in no small part because of the Fifth and Walnut garage, is that people really value the downtown skyline,” he said. “But, this is the first attempt at wind energy guidelines. The probability is very high we’ll reassess those rules after we see how they work.”

The draft ordinance would allow a turbine in residential zones on properties larger than one acre. Up to two turbines can exist on plots larger than an acre in business and industrial areas. The maximum height varies by zone:

41 feet for residential districts.
60 feet for intermediate and general business districts.
90 feet for office districts.
120 feet for industrial and central business districts.
150 feet for lots greater than three acres.

Individual windmills also would face a number of restrictions regarding size, color and noise:

The windmill must be as far from a neighboring property line as it is tall. The turbine’s blades must be at least 20 feet off the ground and 20 feet from the nearest tree, structure or power line.

The draft ordinance requires that all windmills be a “neutral” color – such as white, sky blue or light gray. Building mounted turbines need to match the building to which they are attached. Turbines also must have a non-reflective finish.

The ordinance also prevents any signs or messages on an installed windmill beyond a manufacturer’s label and warning signs.

Windmill noise would be confined to essentially imperceptible levels. The ordinance restricts them to 55 decibels, which is the normal ambient volume outside and the volume of an average conversation. Turbines also couldn’t produce sounds lower than 20 hertz, a point at which they would be inaudible but could cause headaches.

Before a Columbia resident can even install a turbine, though, the city would require a construction schedule, detailed site plans drawn to scale, a plan for hooking up to the city’s electrical grid and an engineer’s certification that the plans are sound.

The ordinance also would require installers go through a “flicker test” to determine if the windmill would cause light to flicker in a neighbor’s window. Parker, who said he’s had flicker from swaying trees distract his work, thinks that sets a dangerous precedent. He anticipated the flicker rule would be removed from the final ordinance.

A number of changes to the requirements are aimed at fixing confusion before the ordinance goes before the Planning and Zoning Commission and eventually the Columbia City Council.

“The first piece they gave us seemed to be pretty picky and long and complex – and hard for most people to understand,” Parker said.

Lepke said the Planning and Development Department faces balancing residents’ concerns with making wind energy a viable option. They must do so with potential wind turbines waiting in the wings.

The city has received a handful of inquiries from people interested in generating their own wind energy. Columbia’s existing turbine is working great, Malaker said. In some months, it’s reduced his electric costs by 65 percent.

“It helps, but it certainly isn’t the solution,” said Malaker, who now deals in wind turbines as a side business to his dentistry. He said he’s gotten interest in turbines from many rural parts of the county.

A turbine like Malaker’s costs roughly $55,000, he said. Federal, state and local incentives offset some of the cost.

However, wind energy doesn’t yield at a consumer’s convenience like coal, and the benefits of cheaper energy take years to offset the upfront costs even in a wind-rich city, which Columbia is not.

In Columbia, a turbine like Malaker’s operates at only 60 percent of its capacity. It will take between 10 and 12 years for the benefits to offset his initial cost.

Columbia gets average wind speeds of 15 mph, not a high amount compared to northwest Missouri and other parts of the Midwest, but enough to generate some energy.

That 15 miles per hour is at a 260 feet in the air, a height both residential and industrial windmills could not reach in Columbia. Residential restrictions are well below the optimum height for generating electricity.

“Is this kind of low? Yes, for the effective collection of wind energy, particularly in Columbia,” Lepke said.

He added that in most parts of the city, tree height would prevent people from installing windmills that met height requirements.

“This is why a shorter standard may not affect a large number of residents, though I certainly expect some people to complain that it is too low to be effective in producing sufficient energy.”

The city likely will reevaluate the height limits along with the downtown restriction after a few years.

“Most of the ordinance will likely function well for a long time,” Lepke said. “Parts, however, will certainly need tweaking or outright overhauling after a few years.”

By that time, the city could have more than one example to work from.