Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin
January 4, 2008

What is it about living within sight of large wind turbines that spooks certain people to the point of irrationality?

Consider the example of Trempealeau County in western Wisconsin. At the urging of a local citizens group, the County Board there adopted an ordinance last month that requires wind turbines higher than 150 feet tall to be set back no less than one mile from neighboring residences, schools, churches and businesses. This is by far the longest setback distance on wind turbines imposed to date by a local government in our state.

Now, the population density of Trempealeau County (38 residents per square mile) is less than half of the statewide average of 103 residents per sq. mile. Even so, as one developer pointed out at the hearing, there is not one acre of land that can legally host a commercial wind generator under this ordinance.

Why would a local board effectively ban wind turbines within its jurisdiction? Those backing the ordinance say that the one-mile setback is necessary to protect the health and safety of its citizens. Turbines, they contend, may produce sounds and electrical currents that can cause illnesses, even though no peer-reviewed study documenting such a phenomenon exists.

In a recently published book examining the environmental impacts of wind energy projects,” the National Research Council wrote that wind turbines that are 1,000 feet away from a listener produce “relatively low noise or sound-pressure levels compared with other common sources such as a busy office, and with nighttime ambient noise levels in the countryside. While turbine noise increases with wind speed, ambient noises—for example, due to the rustling of tree leaves— increase at a higher rate and can mask the turbine noise.”

In other words, while wind turbines produce an aerodynamic sound that is audible at 1,000 feet, ambient sounds inside a residence (e.g., air-conditioners, fans, refrigerators) and outside (e.g., birds, crickets) will very often mask or muffle it, even at night.

Then there is the issue of the flickering shadows cast by the turbine’s spinning blades at certain times of the year under certain conditions. Though wind opponents commonly inflate this phenomenon into a health issue, the National Research Council believes otherwise. “Shadow flicker is not important at distant sites (for example, greater than 1,000 feet from a turbine) except during the morning and evening when shadows are long. However, sunlight intensity is also lower during the morning and evening; this tends to reduce the effects of shadows and shadow flicker.”
A house 1,000 feet from a wind turbine could experience as much as 20 hours of flickering shadows per year, assuming cloudless conditions and strong crosswinds during all 4,380 hours of daylight in a year. Even if Wisconsin had such a climate, which would make the state uninhabitable for obvious reasons, how does this even rise to the level of a nuisance, let alone a health risk?

But it doesn’t take much mental effort to come up with at least a half a dozen land uses more disruptive to neighbors a half mile away than commercial wind turbines would be from 1,000 feet. Some that might legitimately be considered nuisances are airports, quarries, landfills, auto and motorcycle racetracks, rail freight corridors, hog farms, food processing plants, central station power plants, highways, automobile dealerships that are lit up 24/7, and anyplace where trucks congregate. Yet I’m willing to bet that there’s not one local ordinance in Wisconsin that requires them to be at least one mile away from a residence.

Meanwhile, there are four fossil energy stations in the heart of Madison supplying heat and electricity to local businesses and residences. Classroom buildings surround the main heating plant serving University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus. Within 1,000 feet of Madison Gas and Electric’s downtown power plant, one can find restaurants, offices, apartment buildings, stores, a bike path, a day care center and over 50 residences.

Clearly, for thousands of Madisonians, living, working, teaching or taking classes in full view of these energy plants is no big deal. But to hear Trempealeau County’s wind opponents talk, living among wind turbines would devastate their quality of life. That’s a very harsh assessment of a form of electricity generation that neither pollutes the air or water nor depletes the energy resource it uses.

Trempealeau County’s antipathy toward local wind generation is symptomatic of areas that are completely dependent on the outside world to provide them with their energy. All of the motor fuel, heat and electricity consumed by the citizenry comes from somewhere else. The coal that generates electricity for that area is mined in Wyoming. The power plants that burn the fuel are located in other counties. There is not enough generating capacity in that county to power a single holiday light display, let alone a school or a church.

Indeed, apart from the distribution lines along the roadways, there are very few visual cues reminding Trempealeau County of the electrical apparatus that allows them to toast their bread or automatically open their garage doors. Should one be surprised that a population used to views without smokestacks, large transmission lines, substations, strip mines, and drilling pads would object to wind turbines in their midst? Saddened maybe, but not surprised.

Yet some communities are beginning to appreciate the liability of energy dependency in a time when oil costs $100 per barrel. In the Town of Springfield, a semirural part of Dane County 10 miles northwest of Madison, a group of farmers has banded together to host a six-turbine wind project. Though this installation would be visible from several dozen neighboring residences within a half-mile of it, not one of them has registered an objection to the proposed energy facility.

Indeed, this may be the only project in Wisconsin that has not triggered any opposition, even though the population density in Springfield is higher than in other areas of the state where restrictive ordinances have been adopted, including Trempealeau County. Evidently, the neighbors around the host farms have concluded that nearby wind turbines would not constitutes a health or safety hazard.

This begs the question: why is living in proximity to wind turbines acceptable in one part of Wisconsin and unacceptable in other areas? And what kind of world would come about if every jurisdiction followed Trempealeau County’s lead? These are questions worth wrestling over, even though such an effort would inexorably lead to a book-length response.

Sources: Environmental Impacts of Wind Energy Projects, National Research Council, May 2007, The National Academies Press.

Michael Vickerman is the executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization that acts as a catalyst to advance a sustainable energy future through public policy and private sector initiatives. Michael Vickerman’s commentaries also posted on RENEW’s web site: http://www.renewwisconsin.org, RENEW’s blog: http://www.renew-energy-blog.org and Madison Peak Oil Group’s blog: http://www.madisonpeakoil-blog.blogspot.com.