In Fayette County, Catherine Miller knows firsthand that, while wind turbines are touted by many as a source of local revenue and clean energy, they aren’t loved by all Iowans.
Miller, Fayette County’s planning and zoning administrator, had a front-row seat to the three-year battle that began in 2015 over Optimum Renewable LLC’s application for three wind turbines near the community of Fairbank.
Despite being approved for construction that year by the county, a legal fight — one that saw the city of Fairbank and a group of area residents file separate lawsuits against the development — broke out over whether the county’s more than 40-year-old zoning ordinance allowed for wind turbine development. In mid-2018, the turbines were ordered to be torn down by a district judge. They were dismantled late last year.
With Fayette County already home to more than a dozen turbines, built years earlier in 2011-12 near the small town of Hawkeye, Miller said she was surprised to see such fervent opposition to the Optimum project.
“I would think it would be very unusual for a city to sue a county, or vice versa. To my knowledge, we’ve never had a city sue the county,” Miller said. “Nobody spoke for it, everybody was against it.”
The scenario that played out in Fayette County was rare for Iowa, which is home to hundreds of wind turbines. With that wind generation industry anticipated to grow by close to 50 percent in the coming years, some state agencies encourage local entities to prepare for the inevitable growth by creating ordinances governing the development of wind turbines.
Creating an ordinance
In Fayette County, the lack of a specific wind turbine ordinance played a crucial role in the battle over Optimum’s turbines.
During early discussions over the project, the county’s Board of Adjustment considered a special-use permit for the project, which would have provided the county additional control over the project’s parameters.
However, a lawyer representing Optimum and the attorney Fayette County uses for zoning matters agreed the turbines were considered an allowed use under the current ordinance as energy transmission structures and the project was greenlit.
“The Board of Adjustment at that point didn’t run that through a special use. It was determined by the attorneys that it was an allowed use, so we had to let it go,” Miller said.
The project was challenged soon after, and last year the Iowa Supreme Court upheld District Court Judge John Bauercamper’s 2016 ruling that turbines are defined as electric generation, not transmission.
While the turbines were dismantled in late 2018, a special committee was formed years earlier in 2015 to address the county’s then-ongoing fight over the wind turbines and to prevent future confusion.
By mid-2016, a wind turbine ordinance had been created. Of the included setbacks, wind turbines cannot be built within a mile of city limits unless a written agreement is signed by the city and county.
“People wanted this addressed immediately, if not sooner,” Miller recalled, adding that the county has not received an application for wind turbine development since the Optimum project.
Pre-empting wind growth
Iowa’s wind industry represents more than a third of the state’s energy generation — more than 7,300 megawatts.
And it’s expected to grow, said Kerri Johannsen, energy program director with the Iowa Environmental Council. Nearly 2,600 megawatts are under construction and another roughly 1,800 megawatts are in the stage of advanced development.
“With the schedules currently underway and the projects that already have been approved, we’re heading toward 10,000 megawatts by 2020,” Johannsen said.
By the end of 2017, close to half the state’s 99 counties were home to utility-scale wind turbines or have such projects in active development. The Iowa Environmental Council reports that about half of Iowa’s counties also have adopted some type of wind turbine ordinance.
Johannsen said the council researched 18 existing county ordinances across the state to develop a tool of best practices for county supervisors and planners.
“Anybody who works in this space and is maybe looking at their first or second wind project in the county …, they’re deciding to adopt an ordinance because some issues have arisen that they want to address with the people in the county,” Johannsen said.
Establishing setbacks — a certain distance from property lines, non-participating landowners or occupied homes — are recommended for safety, to address concerns of ice throw or turbine malfunctions. Setbacks also can address concerns raised by neighboring residents about sound, she said.
In addition to setbacks, Johannsen said the council also encourages counties to enact a clear and well-defined application process for wind developers, with the county Board of Supervisors making the final decision to add a level of accountability.
In addition to the council, Iowa’s Center for Rural Affairs last year created a Wind Energy Ordinances guide, also geared to county government officials.
Lu Nelson, policy program associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, said the guide was created to help counties less familiar with Iowa’s wind industry, particularly smaller counties with fewer resources dedicated to crafting new ordinances.
“They’re mostly focused on getting community input, using good peer-reviewed research to inform the rationale behind the ordinance and really just taking the time to put into play standards that will be well balanced and will serve the community well,” Nelson said.
Both Johannsen and Nelson said one of the biggest factors in crafting an ordinance is creating an open process to collect public comments and concerns.
“I think if I could ever give just one recommendation when it comes to wind energy is that early and regular public participation and outreach is absolutely key. And it’s because it’s new, it’s different and change is difficult,” Nelson said. “I think that’s the real key when it comes to zoning. You’re just trying to find that balance between one landowner’s use and other landowner’s use, and that’s what’s really key here is striking that balance.”
Finding that balance while crafting an ordinance, rather than at the point of a turbine application, helps reduce the emotion and ambiguity surrounding a project, Johannsen said.
“That kind of a process really leads to a more peaceful coexistence. They can see the economic benefits that they get from wind, while making sure they’re taking care of the issues that tend to come up,” she said.
Some can be ‘very opposed’
As one of the state’s two largest energy utilities, Alliant Energy has been one of the state’s biggest investors in wind development.
The utility operates just shy of 300 megawatts of wind power in the state. Another 470 megawatts are expected to come online by the end of March, and an additional 530 megawatts are in the planning phase.
While Alliant’s projects have been limited to a handful of large-scale wind farms, Ben Lipari, director of resource development with Alliant, said it’s inevitable that projects expand into counties less familiar with turbines.
“You’re going to have some landowners that are very welcoming to the opportunity to have turbines and other project infrastructure located on the land, and you’ll have other landowners that, frankly, can be very opposed,” Lipari said.
One selling point to wind turbines is the tax revenue they generate.
“Wind farms in Iowa get taxed locally. The property tax payments for that project go directly to that local county and are split up among school districts and cities,” said Alliant spokesman Justin Foss.
Foss said by 2028, Alliant will have paid around $18 million a year in property taxes in the counties that are home to the utility’s wind turbines. The utility is projected to deliver about $670 million in taxes over the next 40 years, he added.
In Fayette County, the 15 wind turbines standing near Hawkeye, built by Bethel Wind Energy, pumped out more than $217,000 in property tax revenue in 2017, according to a report in the Fayette County Newspapers.
Alliant’s Lipari said public meetings can help answer questions and address residents’ concerns.
“A lot of times there is a lack of education that we can provide — not necessarily dismiss their concerns — but just to be able to have a more constructive dialogue on how we can be responsible with our development, with our placement of that infrastructure, to mitigate effects that they might feel they’d be left with through the operations of the facility,” he said.
Lipari said Alliant officials deploy a set of best practices when entering a new county or project that involves meeting with residents and gathering input.
“There’s quite a bit of effort that goes into it to ensure we understand how they manage their land, what equipment they use, the history of their land,” he said. “I’d say, in general, we’re successful in being able to build general support for the project.”
Lipari said the presence of county zoning ordinances, such as those proposed by the Iowa Environmental Council and Center for Rural Affairs, help the utility better deploy wind in a new county be eliminating some of the ambiguity.
“We are generally supportive of counties having an ordinance in place for us to understand how we can follow a process, because removing that ambiguity does bring some certainty to how we should think about designing the project, and as we’re talking to landowners and the broader community what they can expect,” Lipari said.
Turbines don’t pose a risk to human health: report
When wind turbines are proposed, one of the more common arguments against the structures focuses on concern over sound or negative health effects caused by the constant rotation of massive blades.
However, a joint report released in January of this year by the Iowa Environmental Council, University of Iowa’s Environmental Health Sciences Research Center and not-for-profit organization Iowa Policy Project argues that the sound from wind turbines does not represent a risk to human health.
“There is no scientific evidence that wind turbine noise causes health impacts. In fact, research points to an association with annoyance that can be mitigated through a process that gives people a stake in the project and its benefits. Wind can and should be a win-win for Iowans and the environment,” Kerri Johannsen, energy program director with the Iowa Environmental Council, said in an email.
The report, which pulls research by the Council of Canadian Academies and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes the research of a “nocebo effect” to wind turbines.
“When people experience symptoms of compromised health, yet there is not enough evidence to find more than annoyance and no other health effects, it is reasonable to look for other explanations, including confounding factors,” the report states. “Related to the similar-sounding placebo effect, the nocebo effect comes into play, in this case, when people are predisposed to believe they will see health consequences from wind turbines coming into their area.”
With a nocebo effect in mind, David Osterberg, founder of Iowa Policy Project and former Iowa state representative, said it makes it less likely that additional setbacks — boundaries required between development and other properties or occupied structures for safety purposes — will mitigate all neighbors’ concerns.
“If you move them back another 1,000 feet, is that going to help? I don’t think it will,” said Osterberg, professor emeritus with the University of Iowa’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health. “That may not be enough. I’m sympathetic to local people having something put upon them that they have no control over, but what kind of accommodation is there?”
With no proof of health effects caused by wind turbines, Osterberg said opposition often stems from such annoyance. Some landowners who don’t receive lease payments from wind turbines simply don’t want to look at the structures.
Osterberg said incentives could be provided by wind developers to nearby property owners to reduce pushback.
“The people who are closest to these wind turbines often are farmers who just rented the land to the company, and they’re getting $4,000 or $8,000 a year. Do they have any symptoms? No,” he said. “There is no disease associated with it, there is annoyance, and the annoyance probably cannot be mitigated by what people are asking for, which is a distance.”