Proponent of industrial wind turbine plan challenges opposing views

A flyer recently went out to Somerset County residents from Safe for Somerset. The flyer played to emotions of the people rather than appealing to their logic.  This flyer made unsubstantiated claims that the proposed turbines could lead to a property value decrease of 10-40%, create unnamed health risks and cause catastrophic damage from ice throws, broken blades, fires, oil leaks and deteriorated turbines. The flyer directs interested individuals to the Safe for Somerset website where there is a petition which rather than requesting for specific changes to local zoning or productive involvement in local zoning processes bluntly states that they are against the business of industrial wind energy. The petition also cites reasons for prohibiting this type of business including a decline in county tax base, low job creation from the project (this misinformation is clearly rebutted by the estimated 14 long term jobs and 529 temporary jobs as per a economic study done by the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore), a rise in electricity prices, inhibition of development at Crisfield, Wallops and PAX River airports, health risks from noise pollution, funding through the lifespan of the project and the risk of disturbing the scenic beauty and wildlife as reasons to oppose wind energy in Somerset County.

 

Somerset County is in dire need of business. The current proposed project is estimated by the University of Baltimore to bring in $2.9 million in local taxes per year. The wind developer has offered to discuss setting up a PILOT (payment in lieu of tax system) which would give the county a solid source of revenue to count on each year. When was the last time a business attempted to move into Somerset County that was projected to bring in that type of revenue?

 

When speaking of energy prices it is important to remember that in 2012 Gov. O’Malley issued a directive which requires that 20% of Maryland’s energy usage be “green” renewable energy by 2020. This mandate will cause fluctuations in the energy prices as it forces a shift from conventional means of energy production to “green energy”. To meet the guidelines of this law there are three realistic options; solar, off shore wind and on shore wind. By a large margin the cheapest of these options is on shore wind. Allowing a wind developer to install turbines and sell the energy will not cause a rise in prices. What will cause the rise in prices is the 20% mandate. What will cause prices to rise further is not meeting the terms of the law with the cheapest solution (on shore wind) and therefore forcing the introduction of a much more expensive form of energy such as offshore wind or solar. Pioneer is hoping to do business in Somerset and in the process will provide the cheapest form of green energy for the 20% mandate of our overall energy consumption.

 

It is also important to note that when many people look at the prices of wind energy and the relatively low output they fail to factor in that wind energy is inflation free. Unlike coal or natural gas which require the continual purchase of fuel, or nuclear which requires the financial commitment to store radioactive materials for several thousand years, there are no major costs to wind energy after the initial construction, other than property taxes paid to the county, until the decommissioning process at the end of the turbines life. Given the financial insecurities the dollar faces and the trends of inflation in ten years, it is conceivable that the turbines built now will produce the cheapest energy in the nation.

 

Also the opposition claims that the turbines are an unfunded liability. It is highly unlikely that the proposed turbines would ever be abandoned. In the lower 48 states there are no abandoned turbines. After the initial expenses are paid in the early years it would not make sense to abandon a turbine that is producing valuable electricity that is itself worth much in scrap value. However in the unlikely event that the turbine owners file for bankruptcy and cannot afford to maintain or remove the structures, there must be a system in place for removing them. The Zoning Commission is setting forward a bonding proposal that would ensure that the turbines do not become structural hazards. It is important to note that while the dollar has been experiencing highs and lows in terms of value, the historic trend of most metals has been up. In the event the owner simply abandons the turbine the landowner would be left with a small fortune in recyclable metals such as steel, copper and aluminum. Bonding is important but it is critical to remember that unlike the many derelict buildings in the area, the turbines will retain a value even after their operational lifespan has passed, making them far less of a future risk than other structures in the area.

 

Those in opposition to the proposed turbines often state a concern over the US government’s investments in “green” energy. These concerns do have merit as there have been several companies funded with taxpayer dollars (such as grants and subsidies) that have failed to thrive and grow on their own. Most people are aware of the green energy company Solyndra and its rise, fall and subsequent loss of taxpayer dollars. Unlike many green energy companies the company who is currently investing in Somerset County (Pioneer) does not receive any funding through grants or subsidies for the production of wind energy. Pioneer is eligible for tax credits and every energy company and practically every other company in existence utilizes tax credits, if available. This project places no taxpayer dollars at risk. Rather than ostracize Pioneer for using every legal means to maximize profits as every business does, they should be applauded for making use of investor funds rather than taxpayer funds to develop clean energy.

 

Another concern over the turbines is in local property values. While the opposition to the turbines claims a loss of property value of up to 40%, the Universities of Connecticut and Rhode Island as well as the US Department of Energy have all done studies which showed no loss in property values due to wind turbines. Even the Journal of Real Estate Research and the Center for Economics and Business Research have published studies which show no negative effect on property value due to turbines. In Somerset County, property values have been declining as the county is in an economic decline.  If Somerset cannot get business in, it can be expected that this trend will continue. The Safe for Somerset petition claims that this decline in property values will lead to a decrease in county revenue. Property value decline will result in a decrease in county revenues, this is true, but this has been a problem without turbines, so how can this claim that turbines will hurt the county be substantiated.  While not a correlation to property values, it is worthwhile to note the economic study preformed by the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore estimated an economic increase of $1.8 million during the initial year of operation.  The study went further to state that this number would likely increase as the turbines age and need ongoing maintenance.

 

An ongoing concern is that the proposed turbines would affect radar testing at PAX River. An MIT study found that the turbines have no effect on the radar when they are turned off.  Pioneer has negotiated in good faith (and has an unsigned memorandum of understanding) with PAX to allow them to turn the turbines off during testing. Opponents have claimed that this is a national security risk as spies may move into Somerset, watch the turbines and report back to their superiors when the turbines are not spinning. The turbines can be stopped for too little wind, too much wind, maintenance and a host of other reasons but on top of all of that, before PAX can test their radar they have to calibrate the system with a weather balloon. If a spy was going to monitor the use of the radar system would they watch for turbines to be shut down (which can occur for many reasons) or watch for a calibration balloon? Furthermore if there is a national security risk from the turbines, the military would step in during the permitting process and shut the permitting down. To date most of the concerns over PAX River come from the defense contractors rather than the military.

 

As with any business involving machinery there is always the risk of something going wrong. How many trucks and tractors have caught on fire in Somerset County? How many poultry houses? Wind turbines have a very good record when it comes to fires. With 240,000 turbines currently in use world wide (not including decommissioned turbines), there have only been 223 documented cases of them catching fire.

 

Similar to aircraft there is the risk of icing when damp conditions mix with freezing temperatures. A study published in 2007 looked at turbine icing in the Swiss Alps which of course is a much better environment for producing ice than what our local conditions exhibit. This area also has a much longer period of freezing temperatures each year, has sustained colder temperatures than here and the higher altitude means the blades will regularly pass through clouds where they can gather freezing precipitation, unlike what we can expect from our low altitude here. This study monitored ice throw by a turbine with a 20m blade. While 40% of ice slung from the blade landed within a range approximately equal to the blade length there were two ice shards recorded at 92 meters. As 94 fragments were observed this would indicate that less than 3% of ice fragments attained sufficient velocity to travel to 4.6 times the length of the blade. For the local turbines I believe we anticipate 57 meter blades.  Using basic math we can determine that under similar situations (should the ice sensors fail) we can expect that the absolute maximum possible ice throw from these turbines to be 262m or 860ft (this is well below the existing 1,000 foot setbacks in the county ordinance). In a brief publication listing 6 sources, GE offered a standard of 1.5 times the length of the base of the turbine plus its rotor diameter for wind energy production in “Cold Climates.” The turbines in this area will be a maximum of 590ft tall (as per the FAA application), with 187ft blades. This would indicate a maximum base size of 403ft which with a rotor diameter of 374ft which using the GE standard for wind production in “Cold Climates” produces a safe setback of 1166ft to housing (assuming the maximums allowed by the filed FAA permit). Taking this into account along with our climate, that these turbines would have ice detectors installed, and adequate setback requirements, icing is simply not a major concern in this area.

 

As per state and federal laws Pioneer has paid for environmental studies to be conducted to determine the ecological footprint of the proposed project. Of greatest concern is the local Bald Eagle population and local species of bats. While wind companies are trying to find solutions to the problem, wind turbines do kill a number of bats. Pioneer chose this area for wind development as there aren’t any protected or endangered species of bats. Research being conducted at the turbine in Lewes, Delaware hope to find a way to curtail bat mortalities and possibly our own local universities can join in and help find solutions. Completely limiting business and economic growth are not desirable solutions, especially as there has been no study to indicate that losses to our local bat populations will not be sustainable.

 

In addition to bats, mortalities in the eagle population are of concern. The opposition has cited many articles regarding eagle deaths attributed to wind turbines but these articles actually deal with the Golden Eagle rather than the Bald Eagle. The Journal of Raptor Research in 2013 published an article that indicated that Golden Eagles seemed much more susceptible to turbine fatalities than Bald Eagles. In fact out of 85 eagle fatalities at 32 wind farms across the country only 6 were Bald Eagles. Another article published in 2008 by The Journal of Applied Ecology noted that while overall raptor fatalities at wind farms are low, certain species seem to be much more likely to be hit from a turbine blade but bald eagles were not among these species. A 2011 article in the Journal of Applied Ecology indicated that raptors seem to see and avoid the turbines.   They also found a mortality rate for raptors under 1%. The Journal of Raptor Research similarly noted a very low mortality rate for eagles and almost all the mortalities they recorded were Golden Eagles which of course are not a concern in this area. Three separate researchers overseas in the 1980’s each preformed independent studies and published work showing wind turbines were not a major cause of bird fatalities. Furthermore the bald eagle is no longer an endangered species and their populations are thriving in this area. There is no evidence to suggest that losses to the bald eagle population will not be sustainable.

 

The health concerns voiced by the opposition have to do with noise pollution specifically infrasound. While there is no debate that inaudible infrasound waves will carry for quite some distance, there remains a large degree of speculation as to what effects infrasound can have on human physiology. Articles published in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health and the Journal of Agronomy Research link infrasound waves to common farm equipment. In between poultry operations, heavy equipment use and large fans it is safe to state that this area is already saturated with infrasound waves and while many people complain about the air pollution caused by agriculture, not many seem to complain of the noise pollution. The common symptoms listed for “wind turbine syndrome” include loss of sleep, headaches, tinnitus, dizziness and in some cases mild amnesia. These are the most common complaints in the medical profession and can be attributed to a variety of things. There is no medical study that has ruled conclusively that infrasound can cause these symptoms in a wide body of patients. It is conceivable that a definite minority could be more sensitive to lower level sounds and could suffer an adverse reaction to infrasound but this population would undoubtedly be far smaller than the number of people who suffer respiratory conditions from agricultural activities. The Journal of Health Psychology has even speculated that Wind Turbine Syndrome is simply the psychological power of suggestion being manifested.

 

There are several wind farms across Maryland and Pennsylvania and a turbine as close as Lewes, Delaware. I would encourage anyone with concerns regarding the proposed turbines to take a short trip to see the Lewes turbine and talk to any locals available. While this turbine is 400ft tall versus the 590ft maximum heights proposed, it does give an idea to what can be expected when turbines are installed in Somerset.

 

There has been speculation that turbines can cause vibrations felt through the ground. The study on this took place in New Zealand which is a block of tectonic rock which transmits vibrations very differently than our local substrate of clay and sand. Next to the Lewes site is a body of water; look to see if there are any ripples in the water which are indicative of vibrations. Sit at a 1000ft distance and see how loud a turbine really is at that setback distance. Sit in your vehicle near the turbine for a while and see if you experience any of the claimed symptoms of wind turbine syndrome such as headaches, dizziness or amnesia. One family the opposition has cited as proof of wind turbine syndrome claims to experience these symptoms after 30 minutes so wait for 45 minutes to an hour and see if you can claim similar symptoms.

 

Somerset County is in dire need of revenue. Failure to fill this need will result in higher taxes which will further diminish economic growth in the county. The opposition seems to claim that we should ban a business that is projected to provide over twenty long term jobs and over $2 million in local taxes per year based on a misinformed theoretical possibility that a few people might suffer from sleep loss related problems, a marginal number of birds might perish, a fire might break out, an ice cube might fly off a blade and property values might drop. It should be pointed out that in our major local industry of agriculture very few if any farms produce over twenty jobs and over $2 million in tax revenue but the county still suffers from health risks, fire risks, noise and air pollution and wildlife losses.  I do not think any movement to try to drive agriculture out of Somerset County could ever gain traction. In fact, if we hold the criteria for business that it must at startup produce more than 20 jobs, produce over $2 million in taxes, offer no possibility of structural threats such as fire, offer no possibility of health threats such as noise or air pollution and offer no threat to any wildlife, then in all probability Somerset will be even more devoid of business and commerce. These demands are simply unrealistic and yet seem to be the standard Safe for Somerset puts forth in their petition to ban Pioneer. If Somerset drives Pioneer out after they have invested millions in Somerset based on theories and speculations then what business in the future will ever take a risk and invest in Somerset?

 

— Tom Miller, of Westover, is a graduate student in environmental science at UMES and an FAA licensed pilot.

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