As applications for wind farms are expected to increase, the debate over the costs and benefits of these facilities will continue. The debate should be informed by experiences and data from existing facilities in North Carolina and beyond.
Proponents of wind farms frequently cite their economic and environmental benefits. Along with these benefits, lawmakers and regulators should also consider the potential harm posed by these facilities and work to minimize their negative externalities, that is, costs imposed on others before, during, and after the construction and operation of wind farms.
When considering some of the drawbacks of wind farms, it is necessary to consider the experience of countries that have more thoroughly embraced wind power. Germany, a nation that has more wind turbines than any country in Europe, has drastically decreased its development of wind energy in recent years. Supporters of “clean energy” may be surprised to learn that this resistance hasn’t come from the fossil fuel industry or other competitive forces but from local citizens disgruntled by the encroachment and intrusion of facilities in their communities.
Increasingly, German citizens are wary of the effect wind facilities have on cityscapes and the natural environment. An article in Bloomberg notes that locals even have a word for the appearance of these facilities, “Verspargelung,” which translates to “giant asparagus sticks.” Other complaints include low-frequency noise and “shadow flicker.” The German experience suggests that before elected officials approve the expansion of these facilities, they should include ample opportunity for public input.
Perhaps more surprisingly, aviators and their passengers are among those potentially impacted by wind farms. Studies by researchers at the University of Kansas have confirmed what many pilots have suspected: that wind farms create unsafe flying conditions. Though the science is a bit technical, the main conclusion is that the rotational force of wind turbines create extreme turbulence that makes flying dangerous and landing close by nearly impossible. Though empirical support for this phenomenon is relatively new, aviation professionals have long been aware of the risks posed by these facilities. For example, since 2008, EMS guidelines in Calumet County, Michigan have barred air ambulances from rescuing citizens who are in close proximity to the farms. Practically, this means that if you live near these facilities, air ambulances may not be able to reach you in an emergency situation.
Another issue inherent to wind farms is waste. While most of the material in a wind turbine can be recycled, blades provide no such value. Wind turbine blades, which are several hundred feet long, are difficult to transport, and even more difficult to dispose of. In order to be transported to landfills, blades have to be cut into smaller pieces and then loaded on to trucks. This process is difficult and expensive enough. However, the blades still have to be crushed down. To make matters worse, many landfills lack the equipment necessary to crush the blades meaning they’re unable to dispose of them efficiently.
Members of the North Carolina General Assembly have sent mixed messages about their receptiveness to new and expanded wind farms in the state. Some have been responsive to concerns about military radar effectiveness, the economic impact on the local communities, the effect on military aviation operations, and the difficulty of disposing turbines that are no longer operational. Yet, in June, North Carolina legislators removed a provision from an energy bill that placed a moratorium on the development of wind farms in the eastern part of the state.
Given the well-documented costs and unacknowledged challenges that wind turbines impose on local communities, a moratorium would have provided a much-needed opportunity to assess the state’s existing and future commitments to wind energy and the needs of North Carolina’s energy infrastructure.