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Wind Historian Says: Build New Wind Farms Farther From Neighbors

Windfall: Wind Energy in America Today, by historian Robert Righter, was recently published by University of Oklahoma Press; it's a follow-up to his 1996 book, a history of the industry through its first commercial boom. As a hearty advocate of wind energy and continued rapid growth of the industry, Righter may surprise some with his strong call for more sensitivity to quality of life concerns of rural residents. 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.

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 also 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 unlike most wind boosters, he doesn’t content himself with these simple formulations.  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 (500 kW-1 MW).  The leaps that have taken place, with 3 MW 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.”

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 do 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:

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? 

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.

In the final analysis, 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. 

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”  

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.  Larger setbacks, which Righter suggests may need to be a mile or more, would protect unwilling neighbors from quality of life upheavals.  If 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 agricultural, scenic, or historic landscape evoke anger and despair….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.

Note: Righter's book shares a title with, but should be clearly distinguished from, a recent documentary highlighting local anti-wind backlash in a NY town.

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