Local wind saga continues

The Northfield City Council, by a 5-2 vote (voting yes were Mayor Rossing and Councilors Buckheit, Denison, Vohs and Zweifel; voting no, Councilors Pokorney and Pownell), passed a resolution of strong support for the proposed Spring Creek Wind project. The resolution contained identical language to the resolution of support for the proposed new Carleton wind project. I’d give you the precise language if I had it (I don’t) and I wasn’t so tired (I am). I’m proud of our Council for taking a principled stand in support of the City’s Comprehensive Plan in the face of rather withering opposition from prominent local detractors.

Open microphone statements from three project opponents and two of their lawyers were heard. Speaking in support of the project were four locals (myself, St. Olaf chemistry prof Greg Muth, biostatistician Felicity Enders, and all-around good guy (and former Northfield Energy Task Force chair) George Kinney.

For the record, the two-minute statement I read at the open microphone (I had to beg for an extra 15 seconds or so to squeeze the last paragraph in…):

Bruce Anderson

501 St. Olaf Avenue Northfield City Council meeting, December 7, 2010

In Animal Farm, George Orwell’s allegorical tale about the Stalinist Soviet Union, a crucial plot development revolves, curiously, around construction of a windmill on the farm.

I by no means intend to draw parallels between the Stalinist USSR and Northfield in 2010. However, Orwell’s tale remains instructive. The most memorable moment in the story occurs when a modified slogan appears on the barn wall, after the animals’ original idealistic Seven Commandments have been cynically reduced to one: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Opponents of the proposed Spring Creek Wind project argue that it should be treated differently than other wind facilities in the area. The Planning Commission’s differential recommendations concerning the proposed Carleton and Spring Creek Wind projects reflect this, sadly. I believe this is unjust and, if approved by the Council, would be a damaging precedent.

The existing St. Olaf wind turbine, within the Urban Reserve District, is within ½ mile of about 30 private single-family homes. The nearest homes are about 1500 feet from the turbine. The Northfield City Council had nothing negative to say about this project when it was issued a CUP in 2006.

The proposed Carleton wind turbine, also within the Urban Reserve District, is within about 1100 feet of the nearest neighbor, and within the City’s Urban Expansion Boundary. The Planning Commission issued a n unqualified statement about the Carleton project’s consistency with the City’s Comprehensive Plan.

The Spring Creek Wind turbine nearest the city is more than 1700 feet outside the Urban Expansion Boundary.

I would like to think that in a community that takes pride in good government, and in the United States, where we pride ourselves on being a nation of laws, not men, that no animals are more equal than others. There is no compelling reason, in terms of public health or community values, as embodied in our local “Seven Commandments” (the Northfield Comprehensive Plan and Rice County wind ordinance), to treat the Spring Creek Wind project any differently than the other wind projects which have been embraced warmly (if not universally) by the community.

One final comment concerning the Planning Commission’s recommendation concerning inter-governmental dialogue. On the face of it, this would seem to be a reasonable request regarding future projects. However, it should not be allowed to derail any current projects. Similar requests for “dialogue” have been used by opponents around the country to stop all wind development cold. Unless and until there is a decision to change the Rice County ordinance, the proposed projects should not be held to the patently unfair standard that they should meet potential future standards which may or may not be forthcoming.

Thank you.

Setbacks are key: they should remain unchanged until informed by sound science

For your further reading pleasure, the letter to the editor I wrote for today’s Northfield News (before it was edited a bit by The News, and their somewhat misleading headline inserted):

To the editor:

Setbacks are key: they should remain unchanged until informed by sound science

I agree with Gary Carlson (“Setbacks key for turbines,” November 13) that wind turbine setbacks are important. All energy facilities, even relatively benign ones such as individual or small numbers of utility-scale turbines, need to be sited carefully, with appropriate, science-based setbacks.

Unfortunately, Carlson’s proposed one-mile setback is not based on sound science. The information summarized in his opinion piece, and submitted to the Northfield Planning Commission, contributing to their ill-advised split decision on the proposed Spring Creek Wind project (“Planning Commission says no to turbines in township,” November 30) is composed of anecdotal reports and case studies, is not reflective of mainstream science, and is not supported by recognized health authorities.

For example, a May 2010 report from an unbiased source (“The Potential Health Impact of Wind Turbines,” The Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, http://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/public/publications/ministry_reports/wind_turbine/wind_turbine.pdf, notes that “published papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and reviews by recognized health authorities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) carry more weight in the assessment of health risks than case studies and anecdotal reports.” The review concludes that “while some people living near wind turbines report symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, and sleep disturbance, the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects. The sound level from wind turbines at common residential setbacks is not sufficient to cause hearing impairment or other direct health effects, although some people may find it annoying.”

The setback issue is, indeed, key. At Carlson’s proposed setback of one mile no wind turbines could ever be sited anywhere in Rice County. Nor could they be sited anywhere else near electricity loads (i.e. where people live and benefit from electricity). The only possible wind projects would be large, remote corporate wind farms, requiring massive, controversial power line investment and construction, running through somebody else’s backyard.

Some modest, reasonable revision of Minnesota’s (and Rice County’s) wind turbine setback requirements may be advisable in the future as the science evolves. However, it surely is not the place of the City of Northfield to arbitrarily comment negatively to Rice County (the permitting authority) on the proposed project based on such weak evidence.

I urge supporters of responsible local clean energy development to voice your support of the Spring Creek Wind project to your city council representative (prior to Tuesday’s meeting at which the council will review and comment) and Rice County commissioner.

Spring Creek Wind project: open microphone statement, November 29 Planning Commission meeting

When you only have three minutes, you gotta be succinct. For the record:

RENew Northfield statement of support for the proposed

Carleton and Spring Creek Wind Projects

November 29, 2010

Bruce Anderson, 501 St. Olaf Avenue (commenting on behalf of the board of RENew Northfield)

Members of the Planning Commission: the wind proposals before you tonight offer you the chance to act on the City of Northfield’s declared support for, and desire to attract, green businesses.

Your primary concern, no doubt, is whether the proposed projects are compatible with the City’s Comprehensive Plan and land use regulations. I believe they both are. While both of these projects are within the City’s Urban Reserve District, there is no realistic scenario in which development would be negatively affected by the presence of these turbines over their expected 20- to 30-year life spans. Wind energy is generally deemed compatible with agricultural land use, and development of these projects would help the landowners maintain this land use. Facilitating development of local clean energy production facilities, where appropriate, is surely in keeping with the Comprehensive Plan’s call for “promoting an ethic of sustainability in all city activities” and “preserv(ing) agricultural resources.”

The installation of these turbines would generate significant local economic activity, and the economic benefits to the landowners will have a long-term positive impact on their ability to continue farming their land profitably.

The environmental benefits of these projects are huge. They would jointly provide about six percent of the electricity consumed locally while reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as taking about 2,000 cars off the road every year, or reducing residential energy use locally by almost 20%.

The community has had an overwhelmingly positive experience with wind energy to date. The two existing turbines have been embraced by the community as symbols of our commitment to environmentally responsible development. The three turbines in question are similar to these turbines in terms of size and proximity to residential neighbors and city limits. I am unaware of any major objections to the operations of these turbines from nearby neighbors, or any reported ill health effects. The St. Olaf turbine is sited close to thousands of students, staff and faculty, as well as being as close to several dozen homes along Highway 19 as the closest handful of neighbors would be to the proposed new turbines.

Claimed health effects from wind turbine noise are far from a matter of settled science. There is nothing approaching scientific consensus on these claimed effects. In the unlikely event that there is ever a sound scientific basis supporting the claimed health effects, it would then and only then be appropriate for Rice County to review and revise its wind energy ordinance.

We all expect the lights to come on when we flip the switch, and for beer to come out of the fridge cold. Our power has to come from somewhere. The Prairie Island Mdewakanton community is as close to the Prairie Island nuclear power plant as the nearest neighbors would be to these projects. Residents of Becker, Minnesota live less than a mile away from the state’s biggest coal-fired power plant. Surely it is only fair that we do our part and live with relatively benign wind turbines in our midst.

Putting up roadblocks to development of these projects could only have a negative effect on the City’s oft-repeated desire to project an image of being business-friendly. This is a golden opportunity to do the right thing and facilitate the kind of clean energy development that will benefit the community in the long run.

Thank you.

NIMBYism dressed up as science

While I don’t discount the possibility of some negative effects associated with wind turbines (“Wind energy’s ripple effects,” Dr. Gary Carlson, Star Tribune, November 9, 2010), there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I’d rather see locally owned wind turbines surrounding many rural communities in Minnesota, providing clean energy and local economic benefits without the need to build the new high-voltage transmission lines required for most large corporate wind farms, than build so much as one more coal or nuclear power plant.

st-olaf-turbine-landscape-2Carlson’s suggested setback requirement of one-half to one mile would mean that the only wind projects that could be developed in Minnesota would be large, remotely located corporate wind farms with a need for hugely expensive and controversial new transmission lines and upgrades.

While ever-increasing energy efficiency and the kinds of personal responsibility Carlson mentions, such as walking to work rather than driving, are essential, there is no way to effectively address global climate destabilization without adding renewable energy to the electricity generation mix in a big way. The electricity generated annually by just one wind turbine of the size proposed for his neighbor’s farm reduces carbon dioxide emissions as much as walking about 10 million miles rather than driving.

Dr. Carlson’s argument that perhaps 15% of the population will develop “some sort of symptom” when exposed to infrasonic and low-frequency noise strikes me as NIMBYism dressed up as science. While anecdotal reports of such effects from ardent opponents of wind energy in their own backyard abound, I am unaware of peer-reviewed studies of a statistically valid sample size of this supposed effect. A perfect test population for the argument Carlson makes is at his alma mater, St. Olaf College, also in Northfield. St. Olaf installed a 1.65 megawatt wind turbine (roughly the same size as the proposed turbines about which he has concerns) on its campus in 2006. Ninety-six percent of St. Olaf’s roughly 3,100 students live (and all study, work and play) on campus within his one-half to one mile radius of concern. Another 811 faculty and staff are on campus for a good portion of the typical week as well. I would be keenly interested in knowing if 15% of this population (nearly 600 people) began suffering the ill effects he describes over the past four years. I live in Northfield, and I have heard not a peep about an epidemic of this proportion.

I know and respect Gary Carlson. However, methinks the good doctor protesteth too much. It’s already terrifically difficult to develop locally owned wind projects for a host of reasons. Minnesota needs to make it easier, not harder, to develop such critically-needed wind projects.

Richard Heinberg to speak in Northfield November 12th

If you care about the fate of the Earth and the society our children, grandchildren, and subsequent generations will inherit, you owe it to yourself and those generations to come to spend part of your Friday evening at the Northfield Ballroom (1055 Highway 3 North). Richard Heinberg, award-winning author of eight books, including The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies; Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World; and Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, will speak on the subject Mom, Dad, We Need to Talk: Preparing Together for a Changed World” at 6:30 p.m. this Friday, November 12th.polarge

I’ve read several of Heinberg’s books and saw him speak in Minneapolis several years ago. Whether you think that the issues of peak oil and global climate destabilization are critically important to the future of humankind (as I do) or think that they’re a bunch of liberal crap, I can confidently predict that he will provide thought-provoking commentary on how our community can plan for rapid and radical change that will challenge your thinking. I encourage thoughtful Northfielders of all political persuasions to attend.

The talk, sponsored by Transition Northfield, will be followed Saturday morning by a community discussion at 9:00 a.m. at the Northfield First United Church of Christ (300 Union Street).