Regulatory snafus have halted the production of two wind farms in Wisconsin that would have generated more than 98 megawatts of power from a renewable energy source. It’s an unnecessary jab against the wind power industry, which has been viewed as one of the most attractive options for renewable energy — and it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Wisconsin legislators are arguing that current laws that dictate how far a wind turbine can be placed from someone’s property are not strict enough — that companies can place them too close to the homes of everyday citizens. The legislators argue that the turbines will affect local property and home sale values because they are an eyesore. They are also arguing that there is a chance of injury in having a massive piece of machinery nearby — though they don’t specify how they can cause injury.
The claim that planting wind farms near a home can decrease its sale value is completely bogus. The reasons for trying to alter the regulations and force wind companies to build wind farms further from homes are not well-supported and are an unnecessary obstacle to the progress of wind energy. Any change in regulations after a turbine is built could prove to be disastrous. The injury argument makes sense — but that’s because a massive machine with many moving parts of any kind nearby can be a hazard. This comes after another company dropped plans to build wind energy farms in an area in Wisconsin over concerns about the regulatory environment.
But a study initiated by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009 debunked the claim that wind turbines would have a meaningful impact on local property values. The report indicated that — while there was a chance that individual homes would be impacted — as a whole, home sale prices were not impacted by the placement of wind turbines in the area. On top of that, the land that wind turbines occupy can also be used for agricultural purposes, such as for crops or grazing land. That might indicate that wind turbines are actually aesthetically pleasing — after all, they are an iconic image of renewable energy.
The largest concerns typically come from a “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) mentality, said Dallas Kachan, managing partner of Kachan & Co., a cleantech analysis and consulting firm. Some residents view wind turbines as an eyesore, and there’s a chance that the construction of wind farms will have an unexpected impact on indigenous wildlife and the environment. Some projects in California have even been scuttled because of unexpected environmental impacts, he said.
“It’s not a no brainer that every jurisdiction will want wind power,” he said. “There are complicated regulatory, emotional and environmental variables.”
There might be concerns about noise, safety and aesthetics. But I can’t think of a single person I’ve spoken to that has ever complained about the presence of a wind farm. This is purely anecdotal evidence on my part, yes, but many companies typically don’t run into resistance across the board when building wind farms, said John Lamontage, director of corporate communications at First Wind.
“While we do run into resistance in some locations, we often find that many people in a community embrace the possibility of a wind project,” Lamontage said in an email message. “They recognize the economic benefits they bring, along with the clean energy they’ll deliver.”
Wind turbines typically carry large capital costs — meaning the upfront cost of building and operating a turbine will take a long time to break even with the money saved by using wind power. Most wind turbines generate anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 megawatts of power, and the costs vary from state to state. For example, First Wind has a 30-megawatt wind farm in Hawaii that cost $125 million to build and a 57-megawatt wind farm in Maine that cost $140 million to make.
The uncertain regulatory atmosphere cost Wisconsin a pair of wind power projects that would have brought more than 98 megawatts of power to the state. That’s particularly troubling given that the argument does not have significant life outside of a NIMBY-style debate — and that isn’t even what the legislators focused on, according to the report. Wind power still serves as one of the strongest renewable energy sources — along with solar power — that can scale to the size of an economy.
“You wouldn’t see wind being developed in the way it is today if it wasn’t economical in terms of cost per kilowatt-hour,” Kachan said. “They’re continuing downward in price per kilowatt-hour with economies of scale and offshore manufacturing.”
There are 40,810 megawatts worth of wind farms constructed in the United States as of 2010, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Construction of wind farms has been ramping up for the past several years as well — 10,010 megawatts worth of wind turbines were built in 2009, up 19.6 percent from 8,366 megawatts in 2008. Most of that is in Texas, where a whopping 10,085 megawatts worth of wind farms are installed. To put things in perspective, the average household consumes around 920 kilowatt-hours of electricity every month.
Innovation is very far along in the wind power sector, Kachan said. That’s different from solar power, where the field is still somewhat nascent and there are a lot of ways to improve the technology, he said. Most photovoltaic cells — 6-inch-long wafers that capture sunlight and convert it to electricity — capture around 30 percent of the light shining on them and generate one watt of energy. Flexible panels that can be placed anywhere are even less efficient, capturing around 15 to 20 percent of sunlight. That means it would take around 1 million wafers — in the technology’s current form — to come close to the amount of power a wind turbine can operate.
Solar power might be more efficient than wind energy a few decades from now. There might even be some new way of generating electricity that’s more efficient and has less of an environmental impact than both solar and wind energy. But for the time being — as the cost of electricity wind power continues to decrease — wind power should be viewed as a large priority for legislators as a way to generate reliable, clean energy. Now is not the time to stall projects like the one in Wisconsin — now is the time to push them even further.