GUEST COLUMN: Size matters in ongoing debate over wind turbines

Tipton County Indiana (east of Kokomo, IN).

(The following was originally published in the Pharos-Tribune of Logansport, Indiana on Friday, January 26, 2018.)

Paige Woodhouse, Guest Columnist

Logansport Mayor Dave Kitchell recently voiced his opinion on Cass County’s proposed Wind Farm in a Pharos-Tribune column. His stance seems to be based on the financial benefits of the project. While the opinion of a mayor, if based on sound evidence, is certainly something to consider, it should not be used as supportive evidence for this project. Kitchell acknowledged that the city (his jurisdiction) would not directly benefit from the project. He encouraged Cass County residents to blow with the “winds of change.” It seems that when you consider the size and scale of this project, the financial benefits are a mild breeze — but those who would live among the turbines would feel the storm.

Kitchell stated that “Windmills will add to our capacity to generate power, and we have a growing demand for it in Indiana.” While growing demand is a fact, the first part of his statement is misleading. Renewable Energy Systems (RES), the foreign-owned company proposing the project, intends to run an underground web of power lines through Cass and Miami counties, which would hook into an already established grid, sending the power out to the east coast. Many here in Cass County seem to think this project is responsible as it would provide us with clean energy here at home. This is simply false. Cass County will not be using the power generated from these turbines, and we should not be led to believe so, especially by the Mayor.

Kitchell did, however, make a point that is truthful and we should all pay attention. He said, “Windmills represent minimal impact if appropriate setbacks are adopted. Setbacks are a local issue. As Cass County has been more restrictive than other counties in approving setbacks for confined feeding operations, so too can it be restrictive in mitigating noise and any other issues, including falling ice or snow.” Yes, our local officials should create restrictive setbacks in order to protect the safety, health and property values of the citizens that would be affected. The problem, however, is that they have failed to do so and are refusing to consider changes.

Commissioners Jim Sailors, Ralph Anderson and Jeff LeDonne hold all the power with establishing “safe” setbacks in Cass County. Many citizens have voiced their concerns that the current setbacks, established in 2009, are outdated and not applicable to this project. It seems that the “winds of change” could bring the largest turbines in the nation to Cass County. The 150 turbines here would be between 3.6-4.2MW turbines, standing between 660-820 feet tall. This is quite a change from the average 300-400 foot turbines of 2009, when Cass County’s setbacks were established.

Concerned citizens have been asking the commissioners and the planning board — Sailors is the president of both — to revisit the wind ordinance for months, but their requests have been repeatedly ignored and denied. Sailors explained that they have signed a confidentiality agreement with RES preventing them from releasing details to the public until the project is finalized. However, RES does not control the setback details, as Kitchell stated. Those fall under the local jurisdiction of the three commissioners. The only reason the commissioners have offered as to why they are refusing to revisit the wind ordinance is changing the setbacks at this stage would be unfair to landowners as it would essentially stop the project.

Those advocating for safer setbacks have offered a considerable amount of reliable data showing a clear need for updating Cass County’s ordinance. Sailors also explained that they are attempting to keep our ordinance consistent with neighboring White County so that we can be competitive. However, White County’s turbines are half the size (only 1.5-1.65MW) of those proposed here. In addition, White County has nearly 14,000 fewer people and 100 more square miles than Cass County, meaning areas where their turbines are placed are far less populated than here. If our county’s population, square miles and size of turbines are not comparable, how then can our wind ordinance be the same and still be considered safe?

In a simple search for comparable wind energy projects in the U.S., only two can currently be found — Block Island Wind Farm, 3.8 miles off the coast of Rhode Island, and a 15-turbine wind farm off the coast of New York. Each has turbines in the 600-foot range, but they are all in the ocean. New York’s wind farm plans to expand to 200 turbines placed over 256 square miles of ocean, allowing 1.5 miles per turbine. If a 600-foot turbine standing in the ocean requires a 1.5 mile radius around it, why then is it considered safe to place one only 1,500 feet from a home?

Common sense says that our setbacks should be based on the size of our project, and on unbiased safety data. The Minnesota Department of Commerce completed a study in 2011, when the average height of an industrial wind turbine was around 400 feet. It compiled data from 15 experienced wind power nations around the world. The study found that these nations completed their own research on sound and shadow flicker from turbines, and created nationwide regulations establishing safe setbacks. In other words, they found that if the turbines are placed at safe distances, sound and shadow flicker are not an issue for residents.

The study includes data from Denmark, the nation with the highest wind energy capacity per capita, per land area and per GDP in the world. Denmark recommends setbacks of four times the height of a turbine, which would require setbacks of between 2,640-3,280 feet for Cass County. Denmark also has a policy requiring that if someone living within six times the height of a turbine loses a minimum of 1% of their property value due to proximity of a turbine, the wind developer must reimburse that person for their loss.

The Netherlands, the country that manufactures the turbines that RES uses, also recommends setbacks of four times the height of a turbine. They also require sound restrictions of 41 decibels at night and 47 during the day. Cass County currently allows 60 decibels. France has even stricter sound limits of only 25 decibels within residences near turbines. Germany requires setbacks of at least 3,280 feet and sound limits of 35 decibels at night and 45 decibels during the day.

These are entire nations, basing their setbacks on scientific studies, and with turbines half the height of what RES is proposing here. All of this data has been presented to the commissioners and the planning board, yet they have offered no evidence supporting the current wind ordinance. Recently, Fulton County’s commissioners decided that this project was not the right fit for them, after reviewing this same data and listening to their residents.

Sailors admitted that he is “not listening to the people.” It seems that our officials may be enjoying the comfortable breeze blowing from financial promises, and turning their backs on the coming storm. The sheer size of this project should cause anyone to pause and consider more than just money. Elected officials swear an oath to protect the safety, health and welfare of all citizens. It’s time for them to make good on that promise.

Paige Woodhouse lives in Royal Center

Comments are closed.