Coconino County’s Board of Supervisors was nearly evenly split a year ago over whether to permit construction of the county’s first industrial-scale wind farm north of Williams.
The Perrin Ranch wind farm, which passed on a 3-2 vote after 13 hours of discussion, is up now, but the debate over how to regulate future renewable power installations in the county is just getting started.
One supervisor is pushing for specific rules and land designations that allow more renewable power, while others seek broader guidelines.
On one side of the debate stand support for renewable energy, control of greenhouse gases and jobs in new industries; on the other are potential threats to wildlife, scenic views and neighbors’ property values.
Resolving some of the conflicts ahead of time is a priority for supervisors as developers test the wind across a bigger swath of northern Arizona and state regulations in Arizona and California push utilities to add much more renewable energy.
“We felt the urgency of it at the hearing,” Supervisor Liz Archuleta said recently.
The Coconino County Planning and Zoning Commission is likely to adopt and send recommendations to the supervisors at the end of this month.
The draft guidelines support renewable energy projects that do some of the following:
— Can demonstrate “significant” local benefits (jobs, electricity supply, etc.)
— Use little water
— Sit on previously disturbed ground
— Can be located close to existing transmission lines
— Serve off-the-grid communities
Qualities of renewable energy projects the draft guideline discourage include:
— Negatively impact wildlife (located in major bird migration corridors, for example)
— Pollute the air (a biomass-burning energy plant could create smoke, for example)
— Harm human health
— Be located near cliffs and canyons
Further, the guidelines propose that subdivision and apartment developers consult with building planners to see whether their homes can be made more energy-efficient before approval to build.
The public can also comment on what policies it wants promoted or discouraged.
BLUEPRINT FOR SPECIFIC POLICIES
Whatever guidelines emerge are significant because they are likely to become the blueprint for companies seeking permits to build in Coconino County.
The guidelines are fairly comprehensive, said Michael Neary, executive director of the Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association.
“It seems like it generally covers all of the bases, and it gives direction for specific policies to be developed,” Neary said.
His group pushed for changes to state law to allow solar panels on homes even where homeowners associations once prohibited them.
Neary particularly likes one provision that would have the county streamline small renewable energy permits for businesses and homeowners (solar panels, wind turbines) so that permits are more “affordable and predictable.”
And Neary points to Gila Bend, where permits for some solar installations now take only 6 weeks to obtain, rather than years.
“If this policy here was adopted, it would be a no-brainer to work with the governor’s office on whatever they’re doing to streamline it,” he said.
MANDATE DRIVING RENEWABLES
Utilities’ growing interest in renewables is substantially driven by an Arizona Corporation Commission requirement adopted in 2006 that utilities generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025.
Some have a distance yet to go to meet those requirements.
Arizona Public Service was generating about 3 percent of its power from renewable energy in January, the utility estimated.
Coconino County has had requests for more than two dozen wind-testing towers in the past decade and the supervisors approved a 40-turbine wind park near Meteor Crater in 2005, but it has not been built to date.
But coal-burning Navajo Generating Station is the biggest power-producing facility in Coconino County today, the county noted, in a state that relies mainly on fossil fuels for electricity.
Arizona ranked 14th nationally in renewable energy production in 2009, behind California, Texas, Idaho and Minnesota.
Unlike small rooftop solar arrays on homes, the look of industrial-scale renewable-energy plants is also of some concern to the county.
This is a county that approved a sign code in 1981, banned new billboards in 1986, and has encouraged cell phone tower applicants to look for sites on the south side of Interstate 40 over the years, “because the view of the Peaks is on the north side,” Coconino County staff wrote in their plans.
Supervisor Matt Ryan said he voted against Perrin Ranch because it conflicted with local plans for the region, called Red Lake.
Appearances on a scenic landscape are still a catch for him, he said.
“We’ve worked so hard to protect viewsheds, and we do have an opportunity for renewable energy. but I don’t want all of our work to protect viewsheds swept away,” he said.
He said he needed a document to help him make decisions when choosing among desires to use renewable energy, to protect wildlife, and to maintain scenic views.
“I’m still struggling with this one, because you’ve got to put them up there where people can see them” for good wind speed, Ryan said of wind turbines.
TO PROTECT VIEW, BUY IT
Supervisor Carl Taylor, who is not running for re-election, takes a different view.
He told Red Lake-area landowners last February that if they wanted to keep their views forever, they should purchase the lands adjoining their properties.
And Taylor is pushing for a stronger measure to specify where renewable energy projects should be developed, and to give the county the ability to require developers to add renewable energy or conservation measures.
“It’s important that we encourage people to use renewable energy and in some cases make that a requirement,” he said.
People will adapt to a horizon that includes wind turbines, Taylor thinks.
“I see this as sort of like telephone poles and parking lot lights. We don’t see them because we’re so familiar with them,” he said.
Resident Linda Webb is an outspoken opponent of the wind farm north of Williams.
She’s been returning to the county to register her complaints about the wind farm, and urge them to block similar projects, as she did Tuesday night at the Planning and Zoning Commission.
“Do we really want a Coconino Plateau covered in 400-foot wind turbines?” Webb asked the commission, adding, “They do not belong here.”
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