Wisconsin May Mandate Larger Setbacks for Wind Turbines

Published March 14, 2011

A Wisconsin state legislative committee has cleared the way for tighter restrictions on wind turbine placement by voting to suspend proposed rules that allowed placement near property lines.

In light of health and environmental concerns raised by residents near existing and proposed wind farms, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) has supported calls for a 1,800-foot setback buffer between wind turbines and adjacent property lines.

The 5-2 vote by the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules clears the way for the state to enact the 1,800-foot setback.

Negative Health Impacts
Many of the setback proponents were originally strong supporters of wind energy and local wind farms. They say, however, wind energy promoters did not give them full and accurate information about the negative impacts of putting wind turbines close to residences.

Dr. Nina Pierpont has studied these negative health impacts, which she refers to as “Wind Turbine Syndrome.” The symptoms, according to Pierpont, include headaches, nosebleeds, ringing in the ears, blurred vision, memory problems, panic episodes, vertigo, and profound loss of sleep.

“Many had supported the wind farm project before all this happened. Now, some became so ill they literally abandoned their homes—locked the door and left,” Pierpont wrote in a 2009 health summary.

In addition to health concerns, residents living in the wind farm areas have expressed concerns about “ice throw” from the turbines in winter. Residents report turbines can fling refrigerator-sized sheets of ice during winter months that threaten their safety. Others complain about the wind farms’ destruction of beautiful rural views and creating a nuisance of flickering light in their homes.

Legislators Take the Lead
The Wisconsin legislature’s joint rules committee heard more than seven hours of testimony from both supporters and opponents of the proposed setback requirement.

“This isn’t about shutting down the wind industry; it’s about protecting homeowners,” said Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere) in committee testimony.

Still Too Close?
Environmental leader Tom Stacy, executive director of Save Western Ohio, says even the 1,800-foot setback is insufficient to protect neighbors.

Stacy says 1,800 feet “is not sufficient to mitigate noise annoyance. The noise annoyance/sleep disturbance fall-off distance is more like three quarters of a mile (4,000 ft.), which quashes [potential wind-farm] development almost everywhere. So 1,800 feet is just another compromise that will be nipped away at by the wind lobby.”

Other Wind Power Concerns
In addition, Stacy worries other important issues are getting lost in the Wisconsin debate. He points out wind farms have a substantially larger footprint than conventional power plants and can require the development of more than 1,000 times the acreage that would be set aside for an emissions-free nuclear power plant.

Moreover, Stacy notes, wind turbines generate power intermittently, only some 20 to 30 percent of the time, which means natural gas or other conventional power plants still must be running to provide backup power. That wastes energy, he notes.

“Regardless of whether the negative health claims regarding wind power turn out to be true, the stronger argument is that wind power is a poor substitute—economically and environmentally—for conventional power,” said Stacy.

Pamela Gorman ([email protected]) is a former Arizona state senator.