If you’re like me, when you drive past a wind farm it’s a little cheery. They have a calming, old-timey look, they’re good for the Earth, they’re innovative but intuitive. A simple machine with huge potential.
But you may be surprised to find out that there are people who hate wind farms. Loathe them. And they are notoriously difficult to build. There are a bunch of reasons for this that touch on a variety of political and policy issues:
1. Permitting. You build wind farms in rural places. County governments dominate rural places because most of the land is not incorporated into municipal governments. County governments therefore have to promulgate regulations for building wind farms. Now, these farms are typically huge, and they have to be sited according to the performance of the wind–you can’t just plop them anywhere. These two facts together mean that you often have to deal with several counties at a time, which may have different rules–and different demands. The major regulations are the zoning permits–how do you zone for a wind farm, which is essentially a non-contiguous collection of 0.1 acre sites spread across miles? Well, you have to get either a conditional permit, conditional use permit, or special use permit (same thing, different names). Special use permits are a “higher” designation, and thus compel greater scrutiny–including quasi-judicial hearings–and usually allow governments to put conditions on passage–for example, they can require developers to dedicate money for road repairs, emergency response, and other public services. They can also limit site selection–for example proximity to property lines–and spacing, often to accommodate aerial pesticide planes. Obviously onerous conditions like these can kill a project.
2. It’s still a nascent, tax-break-dependent industry. Wind Turbines are crazy expensive. It’s hard to tell from a distance, but each turbine is fantastically complex. The nexelles–the body of the thing that holds the blades–are often the size of school buses. They are computerized and besides all the energy conversion equipment in there are sensitive instruments that take readings, control the movement of the nexelle, can “feather” the blades to catch optimal wind directions, and shut the thing down in case of a dangerous malfunction. The blades are 200+ feet long, but are assembled in one piece–which means they have to be shipped from the plant to the field on the back of giant trucks flanked by smaller cars to direct traffic. And a typical farm can have as many as 200 turbines. The expense is astronomical–federal, state, and local government tax incentives are critical to keeping the industry competitive. Tax incentives for production, state credits for use of wind energy, and local property or sales tax relief are essential to developing these farms. Which makes development precarious, margins slims, and investment risky. Risky? Yes, because…
3. Locals often hate the shit out of them. Residents who live in the footprint of a wind farm are often extraordinarily hostile to them. Sometimes they’re stoked by anti-wind fearmongering (thought to be funded by dirty energy firms), but often they just use that information because they don’t like the look of the things. FAA regulations require red, blinking lights on turbines, and in certain situations they can create a loud whoosh when they turn (though typically if the wind is strong enough to turn them, the wind will be louder than the whoosh). There are also legitimate–in the sense that they are held sincerely, not in that they are likely–fears that turbines can throw blades, catch fire and throw it to other properties, cause aerial applicators to crash, and even cause something called “wind turbine syndrome.”
But when considered along with 1. and 2. above, you can see the problem. Getting a permit–which is often necessary to secure the necessary financing to order and install the turbines–is a whole thing. The permit process is often “quasi-judicial” in the sense that there has to be fact-finding by a commission or board. An official record needs to be generated. This means that county residents can retain legal counsel, provide expert testimony, cross-examine the wind company’s development team including experts, and draw the process out through procedural maneuvers, weeks of testimony, and good old fashioned political pressure. And the issuance of the permit is usually wholly discretionary. County governments don’t have to issue the permits. That same political pressure can be exerted to attach onerous conditions to issuance that make development impossible.
And if the developer is seeking some kind of property or sales tax rebate, it’s only worse. Not only do these rural residents have to face a future with potentially dangerous eyesores, but they have to subsidize it? Forget about it.
More and more states are moving to place permitting authority at the state level. This resolves several of the problems–state agencies are less likely to be responsive to political pressure, and uniform zoning regulations make planning and negotiation easier. But even then, various local bodies, including county-level commissions that govern the roads, can gum up the works.
There are some conflicting ideas here. For one thing, local participation in the land use process is an excellent principle. The ability of residents to provide input into and even challenge major land use decisions is a good thing. Decision residing in more accountable units of government is also a generally good principle; insular state-level bureaucracies are just not going to be as responsive or accountable. Since cities can have outsize influence in state legislatures, giving state bodies authority allows people with little at stake to make decisions for those with a lot.
Yet if housing discrimination and restrictive covenants taught us anything, it is that local land use control can be pretty gross. Think about every public outcry over development of affordable housing or building of a mosque in a suburban town. This kind of parochialism has a history of being used to retard progress and social change. Holding major reforms hostage to short-term concerns is dangerous to the type of development the economy needs.
The challenges of siting wind farms no doubts inhibits their growth, which in turn keeps the industry from achieving the scale necessary to break from dependence on state support. It’s thorny. It’s a good sign that the academic community is looking seriously at how these problems can be resolved locally.