Sixty years ago this month, President Kennedy issued his famous ‘moonshot’ challenge declaring America’s intent to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Eight years later, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969, the infamous moonshot declaration forever became an iconic symbol of America’s capabilities.
We now have another declaration, one issued by President Biden two weeks ago, that is reminiscent of the 1961 decree. On Earth Day, President Biden proclaimed that America will cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of this decade. It is an eye-opening challenge that will take an extraordinary effort to pull off, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to have any hope of avoiding the worst of the consequences of climate change.
Getting there will not be easy. It means extraordinary leadership and cooperation, it means all of us becoming a lot more energy efficient, using a lot less fossil fuels and moving our electric production to low carbon renewables like wind and solar.
So it is good news to find out that we have local resources to work with. Northwestern Boone County has been identified as having viable wind for economic development. The county could become part of the national climate effort while at the same time receiving an infusion of capital for its efforts.
The dollar amounts involved in wind projects are enormous. They mean jobs during construction and jobs to operate turbines over the life of the project. They mean an infusion of dollars in direct lease payments to property owners. We should also not forget the assessments that they mean to county tax rolls, especially to the school districts. About 80% of property taxes go to schools, and each million dollars invested in a wind project would garner schools $7,000 or more per year. Multiply that by the $2 million to $3 million that each turbine costs, and then by the number of turbines comprising a wind project, and pretty soon you are talking some real money for schools.
The problem, however, is that Boone County is heading the opposite way as it begins developing zoning regulations covering wind developments. The County Planning and Zoning Commission is considering a set of draft regulations that are highly restrictive compared to regulations that have been developed in other wind-rich areas of the country. As described by James Owen of Renew Missouri, the proposed requirements do more to prevent wind development in Boone County than allow it.
Two specific sections stand out as particularly regressive. One is the required setback distance from property lines, and another is the maximum height allowed for wind turbines.
In most regulations across the country, setbacks are usually determined by a factor of how tall the turbine is. Minnesota, for instance, requires a setback of 1.5 times the height of blade tip, and Wisconsin’s is 1.1. Boone County’s proposed setback distance is not based on turbine height, but rather a straight measure of 1,750 feet. It means that it would take a large piece of land, a parcel that is bigger than 280 acres, to meet this setback requirement for just one turbine. Very few, if any Boone County properties are large enough to allow that distance. It raises the question as to what purpose does Boone County want to accomplish by being so restrictive compared to other regulations in the Midwest?
Additionally, the draft regulations would limit the height of the turbines to 350 feet, or 400 feet with special permission. Hillary Clark, director of social license for the American Clean Power Association, said at a public hearing in Ashland last week that such heights don’t meet up with industry standards. She pointed out that the average turbine being built today is more like 420 feet. Higher turbines cost more to build, but they reach higher, stronger winds and produce more energy. It means that fewer towers are needed to gain a given output. Fewer towers are generally thought of as more desirable, but the proposed regulations disallow them. It is another limitation that makes Boone County an unlikely spot for any wind project going forward.
Ultimately, the County Commission will decide what is right for Boone County: balancing the interests of property owners with those living in proximity to a wind development and with the community at large. In that process, it would be very important to ask questions about the proposed regulations in comparison with those in other states. Also very important would be to actually visit existing wind sites. There are something like 60,000 of them in America today, so they should be easy to find.
The question of wind regulations is a large one. The local debate puts Boone County on the front lines in dealing with the climate issue. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently posted a study discussing the effect that siting regulations will have on our nation’s wind developments going forward. Wind’s potential is enormous, with NREL estimating 15,175 gigawatts at a high potential. The study cautions, however, that with stringent regulations wind would likely be limited to only 15% of that capability, or a little over 2,000 gigawatts. That situation of low wind development would then cause energy prices to rise and create a steep increase in the cost of carbon emissions. Steep energy costs would likely then exacerbate the problem that schools, libraries and rural fire districts already find themselves in, with low revenue from rural tax rolls. Boone County is just a small piece of the big puzzle, but it could take one small step for our county and one large step for mankind.
Jay Hasheider holds a master’s degree from MU. His career with the Peace Corps, state of Missouri and City of Columbia centered on renewable energy and energy efficiency. He currently serves on Columbia’s Water and Light Board.