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Ohio “wind energy killing” setbacks: reports of wind’s death were greatly exaggerated

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windenergygraphicOnce again the wind industry has been caught crying wolf about reasonable and workable setback increases.  In 2014, the Ohio legislature tweaked the state’s wind farm siting standards to require setbacks of 1300 feet from neighboring property lines, rather than from neighboring homes.  Wind energy advocates gnashed their teeth, with an executive of the national trade association, AWEA, claiming that “This would kill further wind energy development in Ohio unless the governor vetoes it,” while the CEO of wind developer Apex Clean Energy chimed in that with such odious setbacks, Apex “will have no choice but to take its investment and its business elsewhere. ”

Get ready for a shock, AWEA: Amazon, not phased at all by the setbacks, has announced plans to build a 100-MW wind farm to power two new distribution centers in Ohio.  And, in a late-2014 review of the status of 11 projects that are in the pipeline, it was federal tax credits and lapsed state renewable energy incentives that were cited as current challenges, not the setbacks.  While it’s quite possible that previously-approved projects are proceeding under the old setback rules, the same statewide overview notes that “several other companies, including Apex Clean Energy of Virginia, are acquiring lease rights and working on plans.” (Wait, what? Yup, the same outfit that just told us the setbacks ruined everything so they’d be taking their toys and going home still have four Ohio projects in the pipeline.)

It’s disheartening to see the wind industry employing these same shopworn scare tactics about moderate setbacks; no matter what the proposal, if it’s an increase over something that has been on the table, it’s decried as “killing” the possibility of wind energy in the area.  Anything over the 750-1000 foot setbacks that the industry prefers is considered extreme; in Ohio, claims that the old 1300-ft to homes setback was among the most stringent in the nation are practically a joke, with 1250-1500-foot limits now becoming the norm, and many areas going much further.  In Minnesota, a 1500-ft setback was eagerly embraced in lieu of a proposed 2700-ft rule; in Maine, a 2000-ft setback was deemed perfectly workable by a developer who was fighting a change to 4000-ft, after which they switched gears and pinpointed a 35dBA noise limit as the real “deal killer.”

Indeed, nighttime noise limits of 35dB or less can mean that setbacks will need to be large enough (4000 feet or more) to rule out development in most communities.  Still, it’s entirely reasonable for some towns to choose such low noise limits, or setbacks of a half mile or more, if the priority is to preseve the rural character of place and assure that few if any residents will hear turbine noise on a regular basis.  Ideally, these more restrictive rules would also include the option that wind developers can obtain noise easements from neighbors who are willing to live closer to turbines (often in return for a financial payout, either one-time or annual).  And guess what?  The much-decried Ohio rules do allow individual landowners to waive the setback requirement, if they wish to; this may be part of why so many projects are still happening.  It’s time for the wind industry to stop moaning about setbacks meant to preserve some semblance of rural character, and begin making peace with the fact that not all communities will make the same choices about opportunities for economic development.

Looking ahead in Ohio: Even as Amazon, Apex, and others proceed with their plans in Ohio, representatives from several northwestern Ohio districts have introduced a bill to let counties supersede the state rules and revert to the old setback standards on a case by case basis. (Will it surprise you to hear that it’s in this very region where Amazon is happy to build with the current rules? I thought not….)  So far, there does not seem to be any active reconsideration of the other key element of the 2014 rule changes in Ohio, a 2-year freeze of the state renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) at 2.5%—foregoing the planned 1% annual increases toward a 2025 goal of 12.5%—while the legislature reviews the RPS program. Presumably, a decision will be made during the coming year whether to revert to the old schedule or adopt new, lower targets.

UPDATE, 1/29/2016:  While I’m not tracking all the news related to new projects, a couple of things caught my eye recently.  Two companies, including Apex, abandoned plans for wind farms in Ohio, though the news reports, and perhaps the formal notices filed with state regulators, don’t specify why; there are many reasons that proposed project aren’t completed, including the financial health of the companies themselves, and the fact that they often do preliminary work in many more places than they ultimately choose to build.  Relatedly, the Scioto Ridge Wind Farm, which was among those supposedly threatened by the new Ohio rules, is still under development; on January 26, the project’s Facebook page recently posted a local news article about an agreement reached between Everpower and a local opposition group, which reduced the number of turbines from 176 to 107; such reductions sometimes involve a move to bigger turbines, and it’s unclear whether the footprint is smaller (and so some setbacks larger) under the agreement.  Nonetheless, another local group has vowed to continue fighting the plans.

Looking for Wind Industry Leadership in Reducing Noise Impacts

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Renewable Energy World has just published a commentary I wrote, urging wind industry professionals to reassess their current one-size-fits-all approach to community noise standards.  You can read it in full, with links to sources and comments from others, on their site.  They’ll be seeding it into their email newsletters during the week, likely triggering a few waves of readership and comments.

Here’s a pdf if you want to download it to read it offline. I’m reproducing it here as well:

Looking for Wind Industry Leadership in Reducing Noise Impacts

By Jim Cummings, Acoustic Ecology Institute

The wind industry is at an important fork in the road regarding community noise standards. After years of successfully using relatively small setbacks in farm and ranch country, recent years have seen a surge of noise complaints, troubling annoyance-level surveys, and widespread fear of new wind development.  Though sound levels of 45-50dB have been taken in stride by many, even most, places where early industrial wind development took place, it’s becoming apparent that for some types of communities, sound levels of even 40dB are triggering high levels of community push-back.  The industry’s first responses to this emerging problem have been counterproductive: discounting the prevalence of complaints, vilifying acousticians seeking to understand the shift, and most fundamentally, insisting to county commissions nationwide that “widely accepted” community noise standards that have worked elsewhere are applicable everywhere.  It’s high time that forward-looking industry insiders take the lead in forging a more flexible, collaborative relationship with communities, acknowledging that the noise tolerance we are used to is not universal: some rural regions are far less amenable to moderate, yet easily audible, turbine noise.  Companies that accept this fact — rather than ignoring or fighting it — will build corporate reputations that could make them the go-to developers across much of rural America.

A few tidbits highlight just how counterproductive the current entrenched “everything is fine” stance has become:

Read the rest of this entry »

New wind farm illustrates divided reactions

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This short story from Australia neatly sums up the divide in many communities over wind farm development.

Wind farm part of landscape just background noise

Black Springs resident Kerry Heinrich (above) is happy to have wind turbines in her backyard. At yesterday’s launch of the Waterloo wind farm – 30km from Clare – Ms Heinrich said the 37 wind turbines created only “background noise”.

“I think they are quite stunning,” she said. “They are just part of the landscape now.”

Yet others were far less happy on the first day of operation. Stop Industrial Wind Turbines chairwoman Ally Fricker said the community was “bitterly divided” about the farm.  A small group of protesters concerned about turbine noise and sleep disruption held signs including saying “turbines kill rural communities” and “more research needed.”

It all comes down to how much, if any, background noise someone is ready for, it seems.  Time will tell whether the homes in this particular community are close enough to the turbines to cause ongoing problems, or only occasionally audible noise.

Hurdles, resistance remain in wind-friendly Europe

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Just came across a fairly detailed article looking at wind energy in Holland, and more generally, in Europe.  The article focuses on local resistance to a large windfarm being planned on the coast of Holland, but it included this section, citing the European Wind Energy Association on the long project timelines and high rate of local resistance and legal challenges:

“In Holland, there’s hardly any project that doesn’t get delayed,” said Michiel Muller, the wind unit manager of Ecofys, a research and consultancy firm on sustainable energy, who is not connected with the Urk project.

Across Europe, each installation faces a slew of hurdles, starting from the required Environmental Impact Assessment to regulatory approvals by often more than a dozen authorities. It takes an average of 55 months to wade through the bureaucratic tangle before work can begin, the European Wind Energy Association said.

Of some 200 wind energy projects studied in 2007-8 in Europe, 40 percent were ensnared in lawsuits, and 30 percent more faced slowdowns because of local resistance or questioning from nonprofit environmental groups, the association said. It had no figures on how many projects were killed before they got started.

Down East wind features call for half-mile or more setbacks, floating offshore, limited forest ridge development

Human impacts, News, Ocean, Wildlands, Wind turbines 1 Comment »

Down East magazine, a Maine institution, has published a series of stories on wind power in Maine, with enough detail to be valuable to people in any rural state who are trying to find the proper balance on wind development.  The series includes in-depth articles on the University of Maine’s leadership in developing floating far-offshore wind farms and on controversy surrounding the potential for many ridgetop wind farms in the relatively wild mountains of western Maine, and an editorial noting the quick and fearful reactions of many communities to just the thought of a new wind farm.

In the article detailing facts about Maine’s current wind power sites and proposals (which reads as generally supportive of wind development), the short section on noise impacts, noting both the moderate noise levels and big impact reported by some neighbors, was followed by a surprisingly blunt recommendation about setbacks: “Half a mile, at minimum. But most agree that a mile is more advisable, as virtually no complaints have been lodged by neighbors this far from a wind turbine.”

The wildlands article makes the case for protecting Maine’s highest ridgetops (over 2700 feet) from development, and focusing on smaller-scale, distributed alternative energy generation, including solar as well as wind, built closer to existing power infrastructure.

The article on the future of floating offshore wind is especially inspiring.  The UMaine team plans to test three 1/3-scale turbines in 2012, with comprehensive environmental monitoring, including subsea impacts, and follow that with a full-scale 3-5MW turbine by 2014, the first “stepping stone” multi-turbine 25MW wind farm 20-50 miles offshore by 2016, and expansion to 500MW or more by 2020.   Here’s an excerpt:

“This is a one thousand-megawatt farm covering an eight-square-mile area,” says Habib Dagher, the man who created this vision and is now leading a team of engineers, environmental scientists, government policymakers, and offshore construction and energy industry leaders called the DeepCwind Consortium who hope to make it, the world’s first floating wind farm, a reality. “In the Gulf of Maine, that’s like an outhouse in the corner of a football field.”

Make that three outhouses. DeepCwind’s goal is to have three such wind farms bobbing twenty to fifty miles off the Maine coast and generating enough energy to power three million homes by 2030. It’s a breathtaking idea, and still it doesn’t fill the frame that has been drawn by Habib Dagher. He envisions Mainers converting to electricity to heat their homes and power their cars (the cost makes no sense now, he concedes, but it will in two decades, given the price increases predicted for fossil fuels) and the state becoming the Silicon Valley of offshore energy. Towers, blades, and other components will be manufactured right here, using technologies and materials pioneered by the University of Maine’s AEWC Advanced Structures and Composites Center, which he founded and directs.

Wisconsin Gov plan to increase wind farm setbacks falls short in legislature

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The Wisconsin legislature has moved quickly to enact most of newly elected GOP governor Scott Walker’s job-creation bills during a special session he called after his inauguration, with one glaring exception: Walker’s proposal to increase wind turbine setbacks from 1250 from homes, to 1800 feet from property lines.  As noted in this earlier post, and in a more detailed commentary on the Renewable Energy World website, Walker’s proposal seems to AEI to be a step in the right direction toward forging a new social framework that will actually support the long-term success of the wind industry, by helping avoid long, costly siting debates, lawsuits, and property-value claims. The proposed larger setbacks would come along with provisions allowing closer placement of turbines if the company works out an agreement with nearby neighbors.

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, negotiations are underway to perhaps come up with some sort of middle ground between the existing regulations and Walker’s proposal, with leaders of the GOP majority sharing Walker’s concerns that the 1250 standard is insufficient.

UPDATE, 2/11/11: The Wisconsin legislature held a hearing to consider suspending the statewide wind farm regulations adopted by the state PSC last year, scheduled to go into effect shortly.  While the GOP-led legislature did not move forward with Governor Walker’s bill to increase setbacks to 1800 feet from property lines, they are considering revisiting the question.

AEI Updates Special Report on Wind Energy Noise Impacts

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Just a quick note to say that I did the first major update to AEI’s Special Report on wind farm noise today.  I added several key new pieces that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog.  The report aims for AEI’s typical sweet spot of providing a comprehensive yet concise overview of all the key issues, presented in a balanced way, with links to source material and advocates on all sides of the issue. The report can be viewed online here, or downloaded as a 33-page pdf here.