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Wind historian and booster urges remote locations for new wind farms

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A new book, Windfall: Wind Energy in America Today, by historian Robert Righter,  was recently published by University of Oklahoma Press.  Righter also wrote an earlier history of wind energy, published by UofO Press in 1996.  In the intervening years, of course, the wind industry has blossomed from its initial mini-boom-and-bust in the California hills (Altamont, anyone?), with bigger turbines, larger government incentives, and growing commitment to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels (coal and natural gas) for electric generation all leading Righter to feel that an update was in order.

As a hearty advocate of wind energy and continued rapid growth of the industry, Righter will startle many with his strong call for not building turbines “where they are not wanted.”  He spends chunks of three chapters addressing the increasing problems caused by wind farm noise in rural communities, chides developers for not building farther from unwilling neighbors, and says that new development should be focused on the remote high plains, rather than more densely populated rural landscapes in the upper midwest and northeast.  While not ruling out wind farms in the latter areas, he calls for far more sensitivity to the quality of life concerns of residents. (Ed. note: Righter’s book shares a title with, but should be clearly distinguished from, a recent documentary investigating local anti-wind backlash in a NY town.)

Righter seems to be especially sensitive to the fact that today’s turbines are huge mechanical intrusions on pastoral landscapes, a far cry from the windmills of earlier generations.  At the same time, he suggests that a look back at earlier technological innovations (including transmission lines, oil pump jacks, and agricultural watering systems) suggests that most of us tend to become accustomed to new intrusions after a while, noting that outside of wilderness areas, “it is difficult to view a landscape devoid of a human imprint.”

He acknowledges the fact that impacts on a few can’t always outweigh the benefits for the many in generating electricity without burning carbon or generating nuclear waste, but goes on to ask:

No matter how admirable this is, should a few people pay the price for benefits to the many?  Should rural regions lose the amenities and psychological comforts of living there to serve the city?  Should metropolitan areas enjoy abundant electricity while rural people forfeit the very qualities that took them to the countryside in the first place?  The macro-scale benefits of wind energy seldom impress local opponents, who have micro-scale concerns.  The turbines’ benefits are hardly palpable to impacted residents, whereas the visual impact is a constant reminder of the loss of a cherished landscape.

Righter also takes a realistic stance about the fact that our appetite for electricity leads to inevitable conflicts wherever we might want to generate it. He says, “…wind turbines are ugly – but the public produced the problem and must now live with it.  Turbine retribution is the price we must pay for a lavish electrical lifestyle.”

But unlike most wind boosters, he doesn’t content himself with this simple formulation.  He goes on to stress that even as recently as 2000, most experts felt that technical hurdles would keep turbines from getting much bigger than they were then (500kW-1MW).  The leaps that have taken place, with 3MW and larger turbines in new wind farms, startle even him:  “They do not impact a landscape as much as dominate it….Their size makes it practically impossible to suggest that wind turbines can blend technology with nature.”  He joins one of his fellow participants in a cross-disciplinary symposium on NIMBY issues, stressing:  “Wind energy developers must realize the ‘important links among landscape, memory, and beauty in achieving a better quality of life.’  This concept is not always appreciated by wind developers, resulting in bitter feeling, often ultimately reaching the courts.”

He was obviously touched by the experience of Dale Rankin and several neighbors in Texas, who were affected by the 421-turbine Horse Hollow Wind Farm.  Righter generally agrees with my experience there, that such wide open spaces seem the perfect place for generating lots of energy from the wind.  But two of these hundreds of turbines changed Rankin’s life. These two sat between his house and some wooded hills, and Righter says that to him, “the turbines seemed inappropriate for this bucolic scene.  For the Rankins the change is a sad story of landscape loss…”  He asked whether the developer had talked with them before siting the turbines here, but they hadn’t, since the land belonged to a neighbor and local setback requirements were met, so “the utility company placed the turbines where its grid pattern determined they should be.  Perhaps such a policy represents efficiency and good engineering, but (reflects) arrogance and poor public relations….(The developer) crushed Rankin with their lawyers when fairness and reason could have ameliorated the situation…the company could well have compromised on the siting of two turbines.  But they did not.”

On the question of noise, Righter is equally sensitive and adamant, stressing the need to set noise standards based on quiet night time conditions, “for a wind turbine should not be allowed to invade a home and rob residents of their peace of mind.”  He says, “When I first started studying the NIMBY response to turbines I was convinced that viewshed issues were at the heart of people’s response.  Now i realize that the noise effects are more significant, particularly because residents to not anticipate such strong reactions until the turbines are up and running – by which time, of course, it is almost impossible to perform meaningful mitigation.”

While offering many nods to the constructive role of better public engagement early in the planning stages and making the case for societal needs sometimes outweighing those of a few neighbors, Righter also stresses:

While some objections to wind farms are clearly economically inspired and quite political in nature, no one can deny the legitimacy of many NIMBY responses.  When the electrical power we want intrudes on the landscapes we love, there will be resistance, often passionate.  This is part of the democratic process.  The vocal minority, if indeed it is a minority, has a legitimate right  to weigh the pros and cons of wind development in the crucible of public opinion, in public hearings, and if necessary in our court system.

As a bottom line, and despite his support for the industry and belief that we may learn to appreciate a landscape with more turbines, Righter calls strongly for new development to proceed in ways that minimize or eliminate intra-community conflict.  Recounting one of many stories of a community torn apart by hard feelings between nearby neighbors (at the Maple Ridge Wind Farm in New York), he concludes:

Should the wind companies shoulder the blame?  I believe they should.  Good corporate citizens must identify potential problems and take action, and that action should precede final placement of the wind turbines….The most optimal ridge need not be developed at the expense of residents’ rights to the enjoyment of their property.

“In the final analysis,” writes Righter, “we can best address the NIMBY response by building wind turbines where they are wanted…and where they do not overlap with other land use options.”  He elaborates:

Conversely, wind developers should give serious consideration to not insisting on raising turbines where they are not wanted…Unlike Europe, our nation has land.  there are vast areas of the United States that have excellent wind resources and welcome the wind turbines….We can hope the industry will adopt the attitude of Bob Gates, a Clipper Wind Power vice president: “If people don’t want it, we’ll go someplace else.”  Fortunately, the country can accommodate him.

Righter also stresses that current setbacks requirements encourage the building of wind farms in ways that almost inevitably cause heartbreaking problems for some neighbors.  While at one point he makes the mistaken assumption that most setback limits are already a half mile or more, he addresses in some detail the findings of a 2007 report from the National Research Council’s Committee on Environmental Impacts of Wind Energy Projects.  Righter observes that scientific difficulties with subjectivity led the committee to “shy away from the most important subject,” the impacts on humans, including social impacts on community cohesion and psychological responses to controversial projects. But he’s pleased to note:

Yet they did address one key impact on human beings: the fact that those individuals and families who suffer negative visual or noise effects from the turbines live too close to them.  This is not the fault of the homeowners, for in most cases the home was erected before the wind turbines arrived.  Usually it is attributable to local government regulations, which often allow setbacks of only 1,000 feet.  Significantly, in their study the NRC’s wind committeee observed that ‘the most significant impacts are likely to occur within 3 miles of the project, with impacts possible from sensitive viewing areas up to 8 miles from projects.’

One might expect that this would preclude setbacks of less than at least a mile.  But the industry prefers setbacks measured in feet rather than miles.

Righter’s book also includes chapters addressing grid integration, government incentives, reliability, and smaller turbines.  He repeatedly makes the case for more research and development into smaller, vertical axis turbines, which, even with their smaller outputs, could be far more acceptable in many locations where landscape disruption and noise issues are paramount.  Anti-wind campaigners won’t find Righter to be very comfortable company, for he sees the technological and grid challenges as easily surmountable, and the government support and investment in the industry as both warranted and of proper scale. He also supports various efforts to achieve better community consensus, including making royalty payments to those not hosting turbines.  Make no mistake, this is an avid supporter of the industry.

Indeed, his long history and his deep knowledge of wind energy make his final recommendations about siting all the more striking.  Righter’s experience and stance has fueled my confidence that the path AEI has been pointing to for the past year or so is more than the pipe dream of a tiny non-advocacy nonprofit.  Larger setbacks, to protect unwilling neighbors from quality of life upheavals, combined with easements obtained via royalty-sharing or annual payments to neighbors who don’t mind hearing turbines a bit more often, is a fair and promising path forward.

As Righter says in his conclusion:

The days of an oil patch mentality of greed and boom-bust cycles are about over.  Most developers understand that it is in their best interest to operate openly and in good faith with the local community.  More problematical is the question of landscape.  Wind turbines placed in a pleasing agrucultural, scenic, or historic landscape evoke anger and despair.  At the heart of the issue is visual blight. Residents do not want to look at the turbines and are willing to fight wind development.  Their wishes should be respected.

Wind developers should take to heart geographer Martin Pasqualetti’s advice: “If developers are to cultivate the promise of wind power, they should not intrude on favored (or even conspicuous) landscapes, regardless of the technical temptations these spots may offer.”  The nation is large.  Wind turbines do not have to go up where they are not wanted.  We can expand the grid and put them where they are welcome.

 

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