Planner’s flyer gets misinterpreted as a university recommendation; would thwart new wind farms

Recently Michigan State University’s (MSU) Extension in Manistee, Mich., published a pamphlet proposing an updated “sample zoning ordinance” for wind energy systems. The proposals were developed without input from the wind energy industry, or the larger group of stakeholders that worked on the state’s sample zoning ordinance in 2008.

According to the principal author of the pamphlet, Kurt Schindler, his writings were intended as a discussion “starting point;” the points he raised should not be interpreted as recommendations; and in any case, are not standards endorsed by Michigan State University.

In fact, the pamphlet has now been removed from the MSU Extension’s website and is not available through MSU.

Despite the lack of review and the pamphlet’s removal, it is still being used by some as an example of supposedly necessary planning standards. The simple fact that MSU is no longer publicizing the pamphlet should be enough to demonstrate that its content requires a cautious eye.

From the standpoint of wind energy developers, the pamphlet contains provisions that – if taken at face value – would be wholly unworkable for businesses, and are not necessary to protect public health or safety. We believe that some of these provisions, if ever implemented, could needlessly deprive rural communities of the jobs and economic activity that come with wind farms. Yet they are being presented by some lawmakers and local planners as MSU-sponsored guidelines or recommendations for wind energy zoning.

That is simply not the case.

In a phone conversation on April 14, 2017, the principal author, Kurt Schindler, described the work as a flyer and made it clear that the sample ordinance it contains was intended for discussion, stating: “Nobody should characterize the flyer as ‘making recommendations.’ These are meant as a discussion point and are not standards endorsed by MSU.”

Here’s the reality: Hundreds of thousands of people live and work near wind farms around the world without issue. Over 20 peer-reviewed studies have found no evidence of harm from proximity to wind turbines. Credible research from MIT, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and Canada’s equivalent of the Department of Health and Human Services bears this out.

That’s not to say that the wind industry or planners shouldn’t work closely with the communities that host wind farms, and indeed they do. It does suggest, however, that some of the more drastically restrictive suggestions in the flyer could unnecessarily impede an industry that offers communities welcome economic growth and investment, as well as cleaner air.

Setback to property line

Setback requirements, as the flyer correctly points out, are designed to protect a wind turbine’s neighbors in the extremely rare event of a tower failure, and ice shedding from a blade. The author states that a setback equal to the tower’s height “should be adequate.”  And, in fact, that is about the range of values (combined with other reasonable siting standards) we have seen successfully implemented across the industry, which have proven adequate for protection of the public while also facilitating wind farms.

However, some have suggested that this sample ordinance suggests a 2,500-foot property line setback.  Mr. Schindler does not agree with this characterization.

He describes the concept presented in the pamphlet as a “boundary unit” that would encompass all properties receiving compensation in some form from the wind project. Since today’s wind turbines are typically around 500 feet tall,  attempting to create actual setback limitations based on the boundary unit structure would result in setbacks 4.5 times the distance that the flyer says “should be adequate.”

The boundary unit the pamphlet describes is – importantly – not a health or safety related setback. It is based on the “compensation unit” concept, related to landowners receiving royalty payments, and the “observed distance shadow flicker has an impact” (although the article gives no reference for the nature of the impact or how that was established).

Here are some important points to keep in mind about any setback recommendations:

  • Setbacks should be based on health and safety. A setback equal to or slightly greater than the tower height is sufficient to protect public health and safety from the rare event of a tower failure. Over 52,000 utility-scale wind turbines now operate around the U.S. with tower failures limited to just a couple in any given year, if any at all occur, and there has not been one report of injury to a member of the public.
  • “Compensation unit” is a concept used in Michigan for oil and gas development, whereby landowners within the compensation unit receive some negotiated form of payment. The pamphlet does note, however, that not all local planning attorneys would view this as appropriate, and emphasizes that the structure is based solely on Michigan law, having no application outside the state.
  • Shadow flicker is predictable and can be mitigated, as the author acknowledges. It generally occurs for just a few minutes near sunrise or sunset. Exposure is a function of many factors, including the sun’s angle, distance and direction from the turbine, direction of the wind, time of day, time of year, presence of obstructions, and presence of people and the susceptibility of the any person that is present. Given more typical shadow flicker thresholds (limits applied to residential structures) and the wide range of factors needed to result in impacts, experience has shown that shadow flicker very rarely (if ever) is an issue at property lines.
  • Shadow flicker is almost never regulated at the property line, certainly not to the extent recommended in the flyer. If planners are considering adopting such a setback, they should understand that it would be among the most restrictive setbacks in the country, and would be twice the setback that was legislated in Ohio in 2014. That Ohio setback has all but eliminated new wind farms there, and is now the focus of repeal efforts by those seeking renewed economic development in the state.

Wind energy projects across the country have successfully operated using some combination of a reasonable shadow flicker threshold and/or a complaint resolution process, which would allow for additional mitigation if needed. There is no evidence that setbacks based on this pamphlet’s boundary unit concept would actually be necessary to minimize or avoid what is already a virtually non-existent level of shadow flicker impact at the property line.

As the author told me on the phone, “The sample ordinance does not suggest 2,500-foot setbacks. Anyone using this paper to justify a claim that setbacks should be 2,500 feet as a general matter is inappropriate.”

Setback to occupied buildings

The flyer goes on to suggest a 5,400-foot setback (or 20 times the rotor diameter) from structures designed for human occupancy, or that turbines be turned off when such a structure experiences shadow flicker.

Much like the setbacks for property lines, such ideas if they were ever applied would greatly and unnecessarily restrict turbine placement or operation. They would significantly impede the property rights of landowners who may want to host wind turbines, even though there is no public safety reason to justify it.

Shadow flicker becomes unimportant at distances far shorter than 5,400 feet, and as noted is rare to start with and can be mitigated. Again, a combination of a reasonable shadow flicker threshold and/or a complaint resolution process has proven adequate for wind farms across the county.

Sound levels

The flyer suggests a sound limit of 40 decibels at the property line. Such a blanket standard would be among the most restrictive in the country, and unnecessarily restrict the development of wind farms. Points to keep in mind:

  • The difference between “nearest residence” and “property line” can be hundreds or thousands of feet. A report by the Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, referencing guidelines from the World Health Organization Europe, specifically applies the standard at the nearest residence and indoor noise. The flyer would apply the standard at the property line, giving no explanation for the change. On farms and ranches, where 98 percent of wind farms are built, that can be an enormous.
  • Extensive research has been conducted to study the effects of wind turbine noise on human health. In research by MIT, Health Canada, and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, among others, no evidence has been found that wind turbine noise (even at greater than 40 decibels) causes human health issues.

Model ordinance processes

AWEA and its member companies have been involved in a number of model ordinance exercises across the country. In such exercises, it’s important to rigorously and fairly discuss the issues around adding more wind energy to our nation’s energy mix. Any sample ordinances should come out of multi-stakeholder processes that include third party consultants and experts, community members and industry representatives.

The goal is to evaluate potential impacts and benefits, and other considerations. This pamphlet seems to be based on a input from a limited number of stakeholders and no discussion of the issues, challenges and solutions. It is also important to note that its contents do not change the Michigan Agency for Energy’s existing sample ordinance, and have not been endorsed by other experts in the field.

The concepts related to setbacks and sound are far more restrictive than what has been implemented in communities across the country, and would effectively “zone out” wind farms in most communities if ever adopted.

While no form of land use or energy production is completely free of impacts, wind energy’s impacts are extremely low and quite manageable. We urge planners to consider all the facts related to impacts and benefits before making decisions, and to recognize that the standards suggested by this flyer would be extremely cautious to the point of making future wind energy development all but impossible.

Mike Speerscheider, AWEA’s Senior Director for Permitting Policy & Environmental Affairs, contributed to this post.

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