Wind power stymied by building code
MELISSA, Texas ” An orange flag marks where Gary Lisle planned to put up a 33-foot windmill behind his house. But that’s about as far as his green idea got in this Dallas suburb.
Denied a building permit in March, Lisle joined the growing ranks of frustrated homeowners across the U.S. whose hopes of harvesting wind energy in their backyards have been dashed.
Some communities have outlawed residential turbines. Others entangle applicants in so much red tape that they simply give up.
“The fact is, we’re dealing with ignorance,” said Lisle, whose turbine would resemble a big pinwheel with three small blades spinning atop a flagpole.
Standoffs between cities and green-minded homeowners are becoming more common as interest grows in residential turbines. Backyard windmills are already an $18 million-a-year industry in the U.S., and manufacturers think that could triple if wind got the same local acceptance and federal incentives as solar energy systems, which typically involve nothing more intrusive than panels on the roof.
Zoning boards and neighborhood associations have heard complaints that the windmills would be unsightly, that the blades could break loose and fly into someone’s yard, that a twister could knock a pole down or send it flying like a missile, or that the spinning blades would make too much noise. (Unlike big industrial wind turbines, the backyard varieties are barely audible.)
“Planning and zoning are the single biggest obstacle to wind energy in the United States,” said Roy Butler, owner of Four Winds Renewable Energy in western New York, who often consults with local governments faced with turbine permit requests.
Local officials insist they are not environmentally close-minded; they are just following the rules and taking into account their constituents’ concerns.
In Melissa, a community of 5,000 people squarely in sight of suburban strip malls and encroaching cookie-cutter subdivisions, Mayor David Dorman said he embraces green thinking. And in neighboring McKinney, Wal-Mart built its nationally lauded “green” store that includes a 120-foot turbine spinning above the entrance.
But Dorman said the city code does not provide for residential turbines, an omission not uncommon outside energy-progressive places like California.
Dorman also said it might be unfair to allow some people to have a technology that is not available to others who do not have the money or the yard space. So rather than grant variances to individual homeowners for windmills, he would like to see eco-minded neighborhoods designed from the ground up.
“If a developer came in tomorrow and said we have an idea for a green subdivision, I’d be all for it,” Dorman said.
Residential windmills start as low as about $12,000, and industry officials say one can cut household bills anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent, depending on the wind and the height of the tower.
Southern California’s well-to-do Bear Valley Springs community also forbids windmills, even though most of its 9,000 residents probably have the large yards and the money needed to join the estimated 2,000 residential turbine owners nationwide.
Michael Bennett, general manager of the Bear Valley Springs homeowner association, said the community’s environmental board just recently began drafting rules that would enable the community to catch up to the rest of the state.
“The No. 1 concern has been visual blight,” Bennett said, “and No. 2, the noise level.”
Rhode Island Renewable Energy owner Dave Anderson said promoting turbines in some wind-fertile areas can be almost futile, since neighbors there “want to be green, and they think it’s a great idea and, you know, we’ve got to do something about the Middle East. But ‘Just don’t do it in my backyard.”‘
“There’s a lot of people who don’t want to go through the hassle of fighting town hall,” Anderson said. “They say, ‘We’re not going to fight that fight.”‘