Recent polling shows that over 70% of Americans support wind energy. In Kansas, where significant wind development has taken place, some 91% of voters believe that “Using renewable energy is the right thing to do for the future of our state and our country.” But the very few anti-wind activists have devised schemes to effectively ban wind farms, all under the deceptive guise of regulation. One way of banning wind farms by overregulation is by requiring extremely far “setbacks” for wind turbines.
Setbacks are a type of regulation requiring structures be a certain distance from other structures or places. But setbacks can sometimes set arbitrary limitations if applied improperly. Good regulation identifies why a setback is warranted. If anti-wind activists demand a setback because wind turbines make sound (as opposed to recommending a sound-specific regulation), you can be fairly certain their intention is to ban wind farms. So what does a wind farm ban look like?
The primary and most legitimate reason for wind turbine setback regulation is to protect public safety in the rare event that an accident occurs. Like all man-made structures, wind turbine accidents do occur. In 2014, a study found an average of 11.7 wind turbine fires are reported in the media every year, globally out of an estimated 268,000 turbines. To put that in perspective, there may be 500 sightings annually of Bigfoot (yes, that Bigfoot). Based on the rarity alone, one could easily argue that no wind turbine setback should ever exist.
Perhaps the biggest threat from a wind turbine is the risk that a part of a wind turbine blade becomes detached (also called “blade throw”). A team of experts in the United Kingdom evaluated the risk of a wind turbine accident. Because actual, real-world wind turbine accidents are extremely rare events (once every 10,000 years per turbine per year), the experts ran millions of simulations of virtually all the possible ways a wind turbine blade can become detached and how far blade pieces could travel. The experts for the United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive summed up their research like this: “The risk of fatality from wind turbines (at 2 hub heights or greater from the turbine) is low in comparison to other societal risks. It is roughly equivalent to the risk of fatality from taking two aircraft flights per annum.” The experts also noted you’re also more likely to die by taking four fairground rides per year than from a wind turbine blade/fragment.
Yet, we do not see anti-wind energy activists working to ban airplanes or playgrounds.
When Compromise Isn’t Fair
Anti-wind farm activists are keen to the political process. They’re quite aware that their demands are radical and not popular with the public, so they mask their virtual-bans as regulation. But recognizing that politicians and elected officials are unlikely to adopt harsh regulations in their totality, anti-wind energy activists will ask for multiple duplicative extremely strict regulations. That way, they rightly suppose, even if all their demands are not met or if they are somehow reduced by a seemingly innocuous compromise, the final compromised regulations will still accomplish the same as the most draconian regulations: a virtual ban on wind farm development. It’s the art of negotiation at its worst.
As already established from expert, scientific study, reasonable and relatively safe setback regulation not only protects the public, but also allows sensible wind farm development. Anti-wind activists have begun demanding setbacks of 1-mile from property lines or occupied buildings for wind turbines, or more. That way if their 1-mile demand is “compromised” to 1/2 mile (or 2,640 feet) through the political process, they can still wreak havoc on a wind farm project. To put that in perspective, a landowner would need more than 500 acres of land before he/she could host one single wind turbine. That would effectively ban wind energy development on 85% of the nation’s farms and likely higher, since the remaining 15% do not always have the best wind resources. Not bad for the anti-wind farm activists that decide to “compromise” on a 1/2 mile setback. Mandating a 1/2 mile setback for wind turbines is clearly an effort to eliminate wind farm development and is not based on sound science.
Frequently, the alternative proposed by wind farm opponents is simply “don’t build a wind farm”. They’re part of the NIMBY crowd (“Not in My Back Yard”) or BANANA crew (“Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone”). As such, they’re advocates of the status quo – not creating local jobs, not improving local tax revenues and not supporting American manufacturing. Meanwhile, other energy sources are given a free pass from anti-wind energy activists. Examples abound of coal-fired power plants, coal-ash ponds, coal mines, natural gas drilling rigs and wells, oil pipelines and other sources of energy existing in close proximity to recreational areas and residential housing, while their potential to harm public health and the environment far exceed wind farms.
Of course, this is not to say that all wind farms can or should be built. Wind farm developers have a responsibility for working with the local community to maximize the benefits to both parties. A healthy, diversified power grid system requires energy from various sources to ensure stability, reliability and cost-effectiveness – and wind energy can certainly help. But if regulation is passed that sounds like a ban, and looks like a ban, it’s a ban.