More than two years ago, would-be wind power entrepreneur Terry Meyer touched off a Whatcom County controversy when he approached a Squalicum Mountain property owner to discuss leasing a site for the installation of a large turbine.
When nearby property owners heard about it, they headed for County Council chambers to plead for an emergency moratorium on such projects. Council members approved the moratorium 6-1 and directed county staff to review the county's 2008 ordinance that had allowed construction of big, commercial-size wind turbines in many areas of the county, subject to conditions.
That was in February 2010. On Nov. 7, 2012, after staff work, Planning Commission review and public hearings, the council voted 5-1 to approve a new wind power ordinance that restricts large turbines to the heavy industrial area that now includes two oil refineries, the Alcoa Intalco Works aluminum smelter and the SSA Marine Gateway Pacific Terminal property.
"That ordinance is my biggest disappointment so far in my time on the County Council," said Ken Mann, who cast the lone vote against both the moratorium and the ordinance. "It's entirely too restrictive. I find all of the reasons to be opposed to wind energy systems to be overstated, inaccurate or hypocritical. ... If we want to be self-reliant, we should be striving to produce our own energy."
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Council member Sam Crawford disagrees.
As Crawford sees it, a big wind turbine atop a 300-foot tower is, in fact, a type of heavy industry. Restricting those towers to existing heavy industrial zones is sensible policy, he said.
The 2008 ordinance allowed big turbines to be constructed in a much wider area of the county now zoned for forestry or agriculture. But those areas also have family homes, and Crawford doesn't think it's fair to expect residents of those homes to live near large power generators.
Crawford also contends that the towers could mar scenic vistas if they sprout along the county's ridgelines, where wind conditions may be optimal.
"The idea that we're going to cover our ridgelines with these, I think we need to be very cautious about that," Crawford said. "Once they are there, they may be there for a very long time."
But as Mann sees it, the flap over wind power in lands zoned for forestry or agriculture is symptomatic of larger problems with county land-use policies. Lands zoned for rural or commercial forestry, or for agriculture, are intended for money-making use of local resources, and people who choose to live in those zones need to expect to live with some level of resource-related activity in their neighborhood. But it doesn't always work that way.
"So now we have people who live out there and think it's suburbia instead of resource lands," Mann said. "We're sort of paying the price now for having allowed a lot of residential development in our resource lands. ... They have moved into resource lands and then they complain about it."
Mann said it's reasonable for a county wind power ordinance to include measures that protect nearby property owners from unpleasant side effects. But he said that could have been done without an outright prohibition.
Alex Ramel, policy and energy manager at Sustainable Connections in Bellingham, agrees.
Ramel said he became involved in efforts to modify the 2008 ordinance at the invitation of council members after the council imposed its 2010 moratorium. But he dropped out of that effort after it became clear the county was moving toward a widespread prohibition on commercial wind power outside the heavy industrial zones. He had hoped for a revised ordinance that would allow some wind power production while addressing neighbors' concerns.
Ramel said wind turbines have been up and running for years on agricultural lands in other areas with few real problems, and the turbines can provide welcome revenue for farmers.
"If windmills really did make people sick, I would say there's no place for them anywhere near anybody's home," Ramel said. "The science isn't there."
Wind turbine opponents also have contended that the environmental and economic benefits of wind power are phony. They say the industry would not exist without tax subsidies.
Ramel said the tax subsidies are real, but other energy industries also receive their share of them. If all subsidies to energy industries were removed, Ramel said, alternative power sources like wind would do quite well.
Ramel added that tax subsidies for wind power can be phased out as the industry matures.
BP agrees. The company best known for oil drilling and refining also has a significant wind power investment: almost 2,000 megawatts' worth and still growing, according to the company website. That's enough power for more than half a million homes.
"Government support is crucial in ensuring the expansion of wind power," the BP website says. "We believe such support should be transitional and limited."
Terry Meyer, the wind power promoter who unwittingly started the controversy, said he has disbanded his Cascade Community Wind Co. and moved to Oregon to take a job with the state's Department of Energy.
Meyer still has a live wind project on privately owned commercial forestry land on Galbraith Mountain. He filed a permit application for that project before the new ordinance was approved, which means he could proceed to develop it under the looser regulations of the previous ordinance.
But even the previous ordinance required a conditional-use permit that would have to be issued by the county hearing examiner. Meyer said the county is asking him to complete costly studies as one of the conditions for the permit. Meyer said he isn't sure it makes sense to raise and spend that money if the county's overall policy is hostile to wind generation.
Passage of the new, more restrictive ordinance is not necessarily the final chapter in Whatcom County wind power development, Sam Crawford said.
As he sees it, if BP or some other company constructs a large wind turbine on the county's industrial waterfront, that could increase county residents' comfort level with the turbines, and the restrictions on them could be revisited at some point.