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Wind power's gusty forecast

Propelled by the twin pressures of global warming and high energy costs, wind energy's growth is picking up speed.
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

Propelled by the twin pressures of global warming and high energy costs, wind energy's growth is picking up speed. In the U.S., wind farms were the second-largest source of new power generation last year, after natural gas, according to the Energy Information Administration.

But as companies and individuals chart out wind projects along coastlines, prairies, and lakeshores, local residents in communities from England's Lake District to the shores of Cape Cod are pushing back. Their objections run the gamut, from concerns that massive turbines will endanger migrating birds and ruin local tourism to good old-fashioned NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard).

For advocates of wind energy, learning how to navigate these residents' concerns is as important as measuring wind speed and lining up financing. By addressing these concerns rather than ignoring them, innovative wind developments are popping up that communities actually welcome.

Moving forward

In the U.S., one of the most novel projects is a nine-month-old wind farm smack-dab in the middle of Atlantic City, N.J., built by Community Energy Inc. The five 380-ft.-tall turbines are impossible for the city's 35 million visitors to miss. The project is the first coastal wind farm in the U.S., built even as controversy over such farms is stalling projects around the world. It was five years in the making, and much of the effort was devoted to talking to civic associations, environmental groups, and the local chamber of commerce.

One advantage: The project was being built on land owned by a wastewater plant that's buying a portion of the wind energy. But that also meant the first question CEI representatives got when they attended community meetings was, "Are you putting up giant fans to blow that smell into our community?"

By addressing questions like these, taking community leaders to wind farms in Pennsylvania so they could hear actual noise levels themselves, and reaching an agreement with a local Audubon group to use radar to track the impact on migratory birds, CEI was able to move the project forward. "What we're learning mirrors what the industry is learning as a whole," says Paul Copleman, CEI's sales and marketing operations manager. "Lots of developers can point to lots of projects where the community has a distinct sense of pride and ownership that they are hosting a wind farm."

Euro inroads

Indeed, by promoting cooperatively owned and urban turbines, Denmark, Spain, and Germany have made big strides in wind power. While wind power accounts for less than 1% of the U.S.'s electricity supply, it makes up 20% of it in Denmark. Other countries are starting to take these lessons to heart. In Britain, anti-wind lobbies have effectively mobilized communities that believe they bear only the problems of wind farms and not the benefits.

Yet, the Isle of Gigha off the coast of Scotland has overcome such objections to establish Britain's first community-owned wind farm. After buying the island from its former owners in 2001, the residents decided to build a wind farm to bring in revenues. Last year, the residents made a $190,000 profit, which has been used for community projects from renovating housing to running the local hotel. "If communities could see the benefits of wind farms, they wouldn't be against them," says Andrew Clements, a local resident who has become chairman of Gigha Renewable Energy.

And, after years of wrangling, Toronto's WindShare Co-op succeeded three years go in building North America's first urban turbine. Located in downtown Toronto, WindShare achieved its initial goal of building an urban windmill and changing government policies in favor of small wind projects. It does continue to face regulatory and economic issues in Toronto, however. So, for new projects, WindShare is shifting its focus and trying to hammer out a joint venture for a five-turbine, $20 million project with a local farmers' co-op.

Big interest

Indeed, adapting has turned out to be the watchword of many projects. Michael Skelly, chief development officer of Horizon Wind Energy, explains that instead of mapping out where turbines would ideally go within a prospective plot of land, like the $600 million Twin Groves project it's developing on 20,000 acres of Illinois farmland, it goes through a long process of eliminating the land it can't use.

That means, for instance, blocking off 1,250-ft. circles around each house. Then, taking into account the fraction of land that's left, the company approaches farmers about where it would like to install the turbines. If objections arise, such as nearby homeowners not liking how the turbines look, the company tries to reach accommodations, such as through landscaping.

Horizon Wind Energy is one example of major companies' growing interest in clean energy. It is owned by investment bank Goldman Sachs. BP, the oil giant, acquired Greenlight Energy, a Charlottesville, Va., developer of wind products. And General Electric, which makes turbines for wind farms, has been boosting its efforts in alternative energy.

For the birds?

Still, the balance between supporting wind power and protecting the environment can be tricky. Consider the case of Superior Renewable Energy. In May, the company got approval from Texas to build the nation's biggest offshore wind farm, with as many as 500 turbines, off Padre Island. The site, though windy, is also right in the middle of the path that two-thirds of birds in the eastern and central parts of North America use to migrate.

Because little research has been done on the impact that rows of 400-ft. tall turbines could have on the birds, particularly in bad weather, some local groups have formed a coalition to make sure that the company takes these issues into account. In response, Superior has outlined a two-year research plan and talked about using technologies that would turn off the turbines if flocks of birds are forced to fly low near the turbines during bad weather, says Donna Hoffman of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

If anything shows how much the industry is learning as it develops, it's this example. "We really need wind energy," says Hoffman. "But at the same time, we want to protect this heritage we have."