The Wisconsin Wind Turbine Controversy
By Benjamin Artz
“Good neighbors don’t host 400 foot wind turbines.”
Signs like these are littered across northeast Wisconsin, the windiest part of the state. Residents there are using peer pressure to prevent their neighbors from leasing small plots of land to energy companies who want to erect large wind turbines for generating electricity. These wind turbines have been popping up all over northeast Wisconsin as energy companies strive to meet Wisconsin’s relatively recent renewable energy legislation. By 2015, Wisconsin utility companies are to generate at least 10% of electricity from renewable resources such as water, wood, ethanol and wind. In 2005 the state reached 4.5%, well below the national average of 6.1% at that time. With Wisconsin having to import electricity to meet its energy demands, the generating capacity of wind is starting to be considered as a viable renewable resource.
But angry neighbors stand in its way. They complain that the towering structures ruin the rural landscape of the Wisconsin countryside. The wind turbines are “eye-sores” and noisy to neighbors, potentially decreasing the property value of the surrounding land. Environmentalists do not like the possible impact the turbines might have on bird migration patterns. Tax payers end up subsidizing the massive structures through tax breaks for energy companies that choose to build them. Tax incentives are normally good ways to get firms to make good investments that will benefit most, if not all, residents of an area. But the wind turbines are not the most efficient generator of electricity, generally operating at only 30% efficiency. In fact, the 55 existing turbines in 2005 only generated 1% of all electricity created by renewable resources in Wisconsin. Residents are simply asking how many turbines they will have to endure in order to meet the state’s renewable energy goal.
However, residents of northeast Wisconsin are forgetting that their neighbors care about income as much as pleasing their peers. Farmers who lease part of their land to energy companies for wind turbines can make a hefty sum of cash without sacrificing much area for growing crops. In addition, it is doubtless that wind turbines decrease greenhouse gas emissions in electricity generation, therefore offering a clean, renewable and potentially perpetual source of energy for a state that imports a sizable and expensive portion of electricity every year. Also, since energy firms do not need to pay for a price-volatile production input such as coal or petroleum, electricity prices should fall as a result, benefiting consumers. Unfortunately, this evidence is mixed at best.
In essence, the cost-benefit analysis of wind turbines is controversial. Lawmakers should weigh the costs of noise and scenery pollution with the reduced greenhouse gas pollution. Are wind turbines essentially a way for wealth to be transferred from tax payers to energy companies and the leasing land owners without lowering the price of electricity for everyone? Do neighbors in the shade of the wind turbines suffer reduced property valuations?
Now the state and its energy companies are considering putting wind turbine farms in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. Regardless of where wind turbines are to be built in the future, it is only a good idea if taxpayer money cannot be spent better elsewhere to reach the state’s renewable resource goal by 2015. I suppose the answer to that question depends on whether or not you have to look at a wind turbine rather than the sunset from your back porch.
-April 7, 2008