Wind power: does it blow, or no?
October 10, 2006 8:49 PM   Subscribe

We're hammering out an ordinance to allow small wind turbine power generators in our town. We'd like to cover all the bases, and are looking for good and bad from other towns.

We've found plenty of success stories - from manufacturers and vendors of the equipment! Ideally, we'd like to find a town (maybe similar to ours, but not necessarily) that has allowed, and subsequently seen installed, the same type of wind energy systems. We want to know what "the people" think regarding noise, views, property values, etc in an area that has seen a few to several personal-use wind energy systems installed.

Pointers as to where to find towns that have a significant concentration of these systems would be great; personal experiences are also welcome.
posted by attercoppe to Technology (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is this an ordinance to have the city build them, to allow private citizens to build them at their own expense, or an ordinance to encourage private citizens to build them?
posted by Pollomacho at 9:06 PM on October 10, 2006

What you want is something along the lines of a model ordinance, right?

Check with the American Planning Association

Also, I found this, which looks to have the endorsment of the New York Planning Federation, not just from energy companies.

This is from the trade industry but gives links to lots of other communities.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:15 PM on October 10, 2006

What is the type of wind energy system? I'm asking about size range.
posted by Catfry at 12:54 AM on October 11, 2006

I don't want to derail, but how did they ever become banned to begin with? I was under the assumption that cities would want to encourage this.

So here's what I'd say:
"You are free to install wind generators, you know, like people in a free society. Try not to piss off your neighbors."
posted by unixrat at 5:42 AM on October 11, 2006

Best answer: Vermont has one little wind farm up and running and a few more in process. I don't have first hand information about how these installs are going, but it does raise the predictable controversies. Here are a few more newsy type items about the wind issues here
- Wind power a vexing question for Vermont
- Free Press wind turbine issue
- VPR wind power debate story
posted by jessamyn at 5:42 AM on October 11, 2006

Best answer: paging scruss, paging scruss...
posted by lowlife at 6:02 AM on October 11, 2006

I'm from southern Minnesota where there are several wind farms. Around Lake Benton, MN they have embraced the wind farm and it has been very good for the community. Also, contrary to what one may think, they are quite beautiful on the horizon, especially at sunset.

Around the farm where I'm from, they have put up a few and I think more are due to go up soon. One hardly notices a few on the skyline.

I'd say my experience with them is very positive, but it is only fair to note that I'm a little biased because my father is involved with development in these projects to a certain degree. Prior to his involvement, however, we were happy with them and he wouldn't have become involved if he didn't believe in it.

Oh, and as far as noise, they are eerily least the ones I've been around.
posted by bristolcat at 6:03 AM on October 11, 2006

There was a sizable wind generator on the south side of Milwaukee several years ago and even though it right next to the interstate and the area wasn't wholly residential there were some complaints about noise. It's hard to imagine that the generator can be louder than urban expressway noise. As far as noise is concerned I think it should get a conditional permit based on the allowances from the immediate neighbors. There should be a decibel limit on the amount of noise generated based on an industry standard. This will disallow cheap generators that may sound like an airplane taking off.

Complaints on views and property values are a non-issue IMHO. If people have an issue with a generator based on the loss of a view then power companies and telephone companies should be required to remove all their power poles and high-tension towers. I tend to think that most people have a favorable impression of antique farm windmills which should transfer over to modern generators.

As long as the structures are built to a proper building code and are maintained not to be rusty eyesores then there should be no issue with a negative impact on property values. There seems to be a value shift in popular opinion where this actually may be more desirable for some owners. Again, that may depend on the makeup of your town's population.
posted by JJ86 at 6:28 AM on October 11, 2006

Best answer: Zoning and permitting for small (eg, home-sized) turbines can get very different from larger (utility-scale) machines. I know there are folks working on model ordinances for zoning for small wind, but I'm not sure how far they've gotten. One of the best resources I can point you to is Windustry, a Minnesota-based non-profit with a lot of experience working with community-owned wind projects around the country and of various size. I know they have a person who just does small wind, and he's a really nice and helpful guy (check out their Who's Who page). If he doesn't know exactly the answers to your questions, I'm pretty sure he can point you to people who will.

I also know that Mike Bergey (of Bergey Windpower) has been working on policies to encourage small wind -- you could try getting in touch with him. I'd caution you that he's more likely to present model ordinances than objective histories of various towns' experiences.

I'd add that I think it's really smart of your town to be thinking about this -- having clear rules about wind is important, because stuff gets messy when people decide they want to put them up and there's disagreement about how the existing ordinances should be interpreted. On the other hand, I'm not sure how easy it'll be find towns with many small turbines installed; small wind always seems like a tough nut from an economic standpoint. I'm sure Brian at Windustry can shed light on that, though. Best of luck.
posted by nickmark at 6:42 AM on October 11, 2006

Best answer: Oh, and you may have already seen this, but Bergey and AWEA put out a small wind permitting handbook which apparently draws on a lot of California's experiences. It's a few years old, but may be useful.
posted by nickmark at 6:46 AM on October 11, 2006

Upfront it would be worthwhile to get someone to produce some kind of document which covers all the technical and regulatory issues relating to this form of microgeneration. Safety regulations concerning having electrical generation on site, including what you have to do to connect it up safely, what you need to take into account if connecting to the grid/exporting electricity to the grid, any particular local regs, any implications of trading electricity. Likely income where this is an issue. Detail the actual planning regs. Operation and maintenance costs over time. Get someone to do this who knows what they're doing specific to your local regulatory regime or who can be trusted to get this right. it may be a local utility can help with this, depending on their attitude to renewables. Bear in mind regs may change over time.

The fear of noise can often be a big concern about wind turbines, though this is largely not a problem any more. The town where we are located has just put up 4 6kw turbines in a busy part of town, we had a student do a survey before they were turned on and there was a lot of concern about noise. This often crops up as a potential issue. Now they're operational no noise is discernible. Two weeks ago we took our students to see some 40m high turbines, all were astonished by how quiet they were. It's possible you 'll get some objections about possible noise, having some kind of demomstration of a working turbine, either at public meetings or preferably in situ with an installed turbine can really help to overcome one of people's biggest fears about wind turbines.

My experience with small wind turbines is that the manufacturers may overemphasise the potential output of domestic size turbines. (We're currently testing one here in an excellent wind climate and output is below what might be expected. I am told this is not atypical.) Something that may be of long term use is if you set up some sort of forum for customer feedback on their experiences with turbines, this might consider cost, actual electrical output against plate output, availability (how may hours they work as opposed to being out of action for some reason), there may be some way to figure out which turbine performs best in a particular wind regime (different turbines have different characteristics at different speeds), there are likely other things but this is a bit outside my area of expertise. A website could work for this. Doing this could have a real impact on the ongoing quality of people's experience with the technology, plus it means the better turbines get more business and forces the crappier turbine companies to either improve their tech or go to the wall, both of which are good for the sector and the environment in the long run.

You really need to get scruss involved in this thread, he's a professional wind turbine designer.
posted by biffa at 7:04 AM on October 11, 2006

unixrat writes "I don't want to derail, but how did they ever become banned to begin with? I was under the assumption that cities would want to encourage this."

Are you kidding? The chronic city hall complainers dislike anything besides the perfectly manicured lawn. A pickup truck parked in the driveway over night offends some of these people.

One of the oppositions is always concerns about the visual impact. Hams have been dealing with this for decades and are a good source of examples of the kind of complaints people will bring forth. It would be worth checking to see if your town has ever tried to regulate radio towers. Many municipalities in the US have tried to ban radio towers despite the federal regulation specifically permitting their erection and use[1] and overriding most local regulations. The kind of tower required for a wind power plant is similar. Also if you have any HOAs in town you may want to examine how the HOAs are regulated and whether you want to force them to allow wind towers.

[1] I'm aware of at least one person who managed to get a variance for a modest wind tower by not so subtly threatening to erect a maximum legal height ham tower complete with external lighting and aircraft warning lights.
posted by Mitheral at 8:05 AM on October 11, 2006

Best answer: The town of Hull has managed to erect two wind turbines. One of my friends lives almost directly under Hull Wind 2, and she says it's really not bad at all. The website linked above has a lot of the press that each turbine has received. The one thing that is important to consider is that Hull has their own municipal power company so some of the distribution issues were probably easier for them.
posted by nekton at 12:09 PM on October 11, 2006

I am ignorant of the ordinances related to wind turbines, but can give you some personal experiences living and traveling around them. Some were erected near my hometown in PA (along a sparsely-populated ridge). I've driven and biked around and find them very stately and noble. The sound is mesmerizing (for better or worse) and I like it, though I can't say what it would be like to live beneath one 24/7. I imagine existing noise limits in your town would give some guidance on that issue.

In southern Spain on a motorcycle trip, I came across a long winding ridge, strung with "ventiladores". Pretty beautiful, in an already-beautiful place. I stopped and explored them for a while, and talked to some of the locals about them. They weren't crazy about them as sculpture, but were on board in terms of the financial and energy paybacks.

I now live in Cambridge MA and have been to the single tower in Hull. My impression is that it's just another pole in the landscape. I'd love to put one on the lot with my house, but I live in a historic house and I can't even change the paint color without a lot of input from the local historic society...
posted by cocoagirl at 5:49 PM on October 11, 2006

The small town of Nevada, IA has three windmills in town generating power. One is on the grounds of the local middle school, next to the athletic fields. It is a big tower, but the sound it produces is barely audible from 20 feet away.
posted by achmorrison at 9:26 PM on October 11, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks all, keep it coming! I've marked some bests, some more may be marked as I sort through all this in gaps in my busy schedule.

Some clarifications:

We are not looking for a model ordinance - we already have one, which we've used as a starting point for our own.

We are talking "small wind" - 35-80 foot towers (depending on the zone district), 1 foot turbines and 6 foot blades (for a total 13 foot diameter) - at least via the one vendor in town currently. Our draft ordinance currently specifies <2 5kw, and 60dba during normal>
There is no ordinance specifically restricting them - there are simply existing restrictions on structure heights etc. We're thinking we'd like to allow them, but we don't want it to get out of control. (Not likely at an estimated $15-20K+ per system, but wind wars, please.)

We are in Colorado, which has recently passed a statewide renewable enrgy requirement (Amendment 37, requiring utility companies with 40K+ customers to provide a percentage of their retail electricity sales from renewable resources). This ordinance, of course, is not to help provide that so much as allow the people a way to provide their own renewably-sourced electricty.

We are also in a very attractive little valley (climate, views, etc), very strong and growing tourism industry because of this - and are projected to begin a population boom any time now...what with the baby boomers beginning to retire. As much as most of us locals don't want to be the next Aspen or Vail (no offense), we certainly don't want to ruin the major source of revenue in the area, either, by cluttering up or blocking our spectacular views. (The point re: the existing utility towers is valid, and we have discussed it.)
posted by attercoppe at 9:52 PM on October 11, 2006

This ordinance, of course, is not to help provide that so much as allow the people a way to provide their own renewably-sourced electricty.

But that doesn't mean you can't mitigate some costs by trading in the market for the certificates you can probably get for generating renewable electricity and which serve as the proof for supply companies to show they have met their obligation under the requirement. It might help penetration to figure out whether and how this might work and pass the info to those considering installations.
posted by biffa at 2:39 AM on October 12, 2006

Speaking purely from personal opinion, I don't think you have a lot to worry about with regard to the views. Most of the view-obstruction complaints that I've heard have been with regard to utility-scale wind, where you're talking about 80 meter towers. Those can definitely be seen a long way off, but you're looking at towers about a quarter that height, and correspondingly less thick around. While I personally find utility-scale towers more aesthetically pleasing than small ones, the small ones do blend into the landscape pretty well -- to my mind, you'll be seeing towers that have a lot more in common with the rustic early 20th-century windmills on midwestern farms (this kind of thing) than with the 1.5 MW jobs. So my personal view is, a few of these things is unlikely to affect views much, depending of course on where they're located (I've been assuming they'd be on people's residences...)

I'd also be pretty surprised if you got a whole lot of them anyway. Small wind is awful darn expensive when you compare it to just buying electricity from the utility. My guess is most folks installing these things are doing it out of love and to make a statement, rather than any kind of investment... and while my own motivation might be similar, I sure don't have the spare $20k lying around for something like that. Still, I'd love to hear more about how things shape up for your town in the future.
posted by nickmark at 6:56 AM on October 12, 2006

Best answer: Sorry 'bout the delay on hopping on here; I'm back in Scotland on holiday. I really don't know much about small wind - anything smaller than 50m diameter, and I'm winging it. I did help a cyborg install a small turbine once, though

You might want to join the AWEA Home Energy Systems list and ask there. Also, Paul Gipe has some informative and readable books on the subject.
posted by scruss at 2:25 PM on October 12, 2006

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