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Rural America gets bad vibrations from Big Wind

Wind turbines are popular—in theory. Gallup data show about 70% of Americans want “more emphasis” on wind energy. Plenty of politicians like the idea, too. President Biden’s proposed Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard calls for “tens of thousands of wind turbines.”

But where, exactly, will all those turbines be built? That question matters because local governments across the country are rejecting wind energy projects. Since 2015, about 300 government entities from Vermont to Hawaii have rejected or restricted wind projects. In March the select board in Scituate, Mass., ordered a wind turbine in the coastal town to be shut down at night from mid-May to mid-October. The problem, according to the Boston Globe: complaints from neighbors who say “they can’t sleep at night because of noise” the wind turbine makes.

The planning board in Foster, R.I., voted 5-1 on April 7 to ban wind turbines. The board took action after hearing from residents of Portsmouth, R.I., who had turbines built near their homes. The Valley Breeze newspaper reported that Portsmouth residents warned the board “about their experiences, complaining about constant noise disturbances, vibrations, and loss in home values from turbines in their neighborhood.”

These aren’t isolated examples. John Riggi, a town councilman in Yates, N.Y., has been fighting a proposed 200-megawatt wind project for seven years. He told me his community and others “are fighting to keep our lands free from environmentally destructive, culture-killing and unwanted industrial renewable-energy projects.”

These land-use conflicts are the binding constraint on the expansion of renewable-energy development in the U.S. These conflicts are coming to the fore at the same time the Biden administration is pushing a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package that includes tens of billions of dollars in new spending on wind and solar energy as well as the construction of “thousands of miles” of high-voltage transmission lines.

Some of the fiercest fights against Big Wind are happening in the bluest states. Good luck building a wind turbine in Vermont, home of Bernie Sanders, one of the Senate’s loudest proponents of renewable energy. In New York, so many communities are rejecting wind and solar projects that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration recently pushed through regulations that will give Albany officials authority to override the objections of local communities and issue permits for large renewable projects. In California, wind turbines are so difficult to site that most developers have simply given up trying to build new projects in the state.

The backlash against the renewable industry provides another example of the growing social divide over climate change and how much each American will be required to do to slow it. These fights are about red versus blue, rural versus urban, and big business versus small-town America.

Local governments and landowners are rejecting wind projects because of concerns about noise pollution, falling property values, ruined views and the potential loss of tourism dollars. They are implementing noise and height limits, establishing zoning setbacks, and even seeking permits to build heliports, which would prevent construction of wind turbines within a 1-mile radius of the landing pads.

Many rural governments that have implemented restrictions have been sued by wind developers. In December, Madison County, Iowa, famous for its covered wooden bridges, passed a measure that effectively bans new wind turbines. In response, MidAmerican Energy, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, sued the county.

These conflicts matter because the wind and solar industries are fueled by lucrative federal tax incentives. Between 2010 and 2029, tax breaks for wind and solar will total about $140 billion. The Biden administration is proposing a 10-year extension of those incentives.

Every form of energy production takes a toll on the environment. But it’s time for policy makers to realize that wind and solar power can’t supply the quantities of energy the U.S. economy demands at prices American consumers can afford. The problems aren’t limited to cost, intermittency, noise, the death of wildlife, or the Bunyanesque amounts of copper, steel and rare-earth elements the industry requires. The fundamental constraint is land. Places like Scituate, Foster, Yates, and Madison County are fighting wind projects because, like people everywhere, they care about and want to protect their communities.

Paving rural America with forests of giant wind turbines and oceans of solar panels won’t solve climate change. It will, however, cost trillions of dollars, blight landscapes, kill untold numbers of bats and birds, make people sick, and lead to more economic pain in rural towns and counties.