To drive through the Minnesota countryside is to drive through contradiction. Those vast rolling fields -- are they busy engines of production for the agriculture industry? Or are they places of natural beauty, serenity and tranquility?
It's harder nowadays to have it both ways. The rapid advance of wind farming, for example, has transformed the rural landscape. Hardly anyone denies the value of the clean energy produced by the giant wind turbines going up on sparsely populated land all across the country. At last count there were nearly 1,500 such turbines operating in Minnesota, making it the nation's fourth-largest wind power-producing state. Many more turbines are on the way, and that's a good thing.
But if badly located, the machines can harm not only the beauty and serenity that so many rural people value, but invite thoughtless and pernicious opposition to wind power generation. That, in turn, could impede the changeover to greener energy that's so badly needed. Minnesota must keep pace with its goal of producing 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources (mostly wind) by 2025. The current share from wind is about 5 percent.
As the Star Tribune's Tom Meersman reported last week, complaints about wind turbines are mounting, less on their merits than on their occasionally inappropriate locations. A family near Austin, for example, lives just across the road from a wind farm. One giant turbine, about 900 feet away, casts a flickering shadow over their 100-year-old farmhouse. There's little they can do. State law allows commercial turbines as close as 500 feet from dwellings, although decibel restrictions typically stretch the actual distance to 700 to 1,000 feet. That's still too close for a 400-foot turbine, especially if it's not on your property.
Machines have become considerably taller since the state passed minimum setback restrictions in the 1990s. It's time for the Legislature to increase the setbacks. Four counties already have done so, although Nicollet County's half-mile rule seems a bit extreme. Governments should strike a balance that shows consideration to neighbors yet continues to encourage wind power generation in appropriate settings. The siting of wind turbines is a complex matter of physics, logistics, economics and common courtesy.
What's most worrisome is the kind of rhetoric that has stymied attempts by the city of New Ulm, among others, to build turbines. It's hogwash to argue that agriculture is a better use of land or to spread fear and ignorance about government land grabs for wind projects. If anything, there's an oversupply of farmland and too little urgency about converting to green energy. As for noise, there's little credible evidence that low-frequency sound from wind turbines is any more harmful than the routine hum of traffic for any urban dweller.
Aesthetics? That seems to depend on individual taste. To some the turbines are graceful and artistic; to others they are monstrosities. Then again, fences, silos and grain elevators were once considered blemishes on the rural landscape, and the Eiffel Tower was vilified as an "odious black blot" on the skyline of Paris.