Mike Jacobs: Wind is blowing in conflict
The wind is pretty much taken for granted in North Dakota. Maybe that's because wind is almost never in short supply. Perhaps for the same reason, wind is also almost completely unregulated. That's about to change.
This became clear at a pair of public hearings earlier this month. So many people showed up that a hearing on a wind farm had to be moved to the Bismarck Civic Center. More than 500 people sat on bleachers for nearly four hours while the Burleigh County Planning and Zoning Commission listened as supporters and critics alternated testimony. Two days later, another crowd showed up at the Emmons County Courthouse in Linton, where the Public Service Commission heard a proposal for a different wind farm. That hearing took seven hours, Allen Burke wrote in the Emmons County Record.
Both hearings were inconclusive. In Bismarck, the planning commission voted to deny a permit and sent that recommendation to the County Commission. The PSC will review testimony, most of it from the company proposing the wind farm.
Using the energy in the wind isn't new in North Dakota, and the idea of harnessing wind on an industrial scale hasn't really come as a surprise. What's new is the range of opinions and the passion with which they are held.
Here's a rundown of issues that arose at the hearings (at least the seven hours that I sat through, four in Linton and three in Bismarck). The list isn't complete. Unlike the hearings, this column has a word limit.
Jobs: Supporters of wind power at the Bismarck meeting wore T-shirts with the slogan, "Local jobs for local people." Today the largest center of employment in the wind energy industry in the state is in Grand Forks, more than four hours by car from these projects. LM Wind employs about 1,000 people making blades for wind turbines, and has just leased the Herald's printing plant building near I-29 to accommodate a planned expansion. Wind energy has also driven growth in the unmanned aircraft development in Grand Forks. Drones are used to inspect wind turbines — replacing teams of humans who used to do the job. Building up a wind farm does provide "local jobs for local people," as long as construction lasts.
Taxes: Lawmakers, mostly from coal-producing counties, suggested in the last legislative session that the tax system favors wind over coal, and not just because the federal government has offered incentives for wind development, but also because state taxes on electrical production favored wind over coal. Local governments look forward to increased revenues from property taxes, because infrastructure is taxable. Additional local support for schools might be offset by reductions in state aid, opponents argued.
Property values: Agricultural and residential property values could go down, especially because a kind of gentrification is under way, and potential buyers might object to the wind farms — for a litany of reasons including visual impacts. They'd be looking at wind turbines by day and at flashing lights by night. The lights would alert aircraft to the towers. New technology could activate lights as aircraft approach, but that could interrupt sleep patterns. Shadow flicker, a phenomenon occurring when the rotating blades cast shade across windows or other openings, can be a nuisance and may be a health risk for humans as well as animals, spooking cattle and horses, for example, and potentially disrupting wildlife habitats.
Aviation hazards: What if the automated lights failed? Would a wind farm in operation interfere with aerial spraying of crops?
Impacts on wildlife: Supporters minimized the threat to rare species, including whooping cranes and bats, but the state Game and Fish Department warned towers and traffic might discourage nesting by waterfowl. Mitigating these impacts might mean acquiring other nesting habitat elsewhere — a land grab in the view of some legislators and landowners.
Landowner rights: This may be the most complicated issue of all, since wind turbines don't have the same impact on every landowner. Those with towers on their land suggested the extra income would allow them to weather hard times and pass on farms and ranches to another generation. Those without towers complained that rights of way for transmission lines paid far less but were as critical to the projects as the towers themselves. Those with neither argue that their rights included an uncluttered landscape and the potential to resell their property.
Setbacks, or the distance that towers must be placed from structures: Must the structures be occupied? Do garages count? Barns? Who measures?
Conflicts with other land uses: Hunting and fishing, for example, and ecotourism?
What about the neighborhood? "This is tearing our community apart," one woman said, to considerable applause.
The so-called "Code of the West" used to be that whiskey was for drinking and water was for fighting. Maybe the code should be amended to say that air is for breathing but wind is for feuding, because wind has replaced water as the most complex and contentious public policy issue in the state.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.