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April 1, 2003
Paul Gipe

Wind Energy "Best Practice" Guides--Wresting Standards from Conflict


 

The following article appeared in an edited form in the Spring 2003 issue of WindStats Newsletter (Vol. 16 No. 2) under the title British lessons to avoid anti-wind conflict—a best practice guide.

 

Contributing editor Paul Gipe examines the origin of these unique documents.

With another boom year forecast--more than one billion Euros in capacity additions expected in the United States alone--environmental activists are being forced to take a closer look at wind energy. The burgeoning wind industry has proposed a myriad of projects in areas of North America, for example, where environmentalists have no first-hand experience of the technology.

Proposals at some high profile sites, such as Nantuckett Sound off the coast of Massachusetts, have run into unexpectedly stiff opposition. Proponents have taken the unusual step of asking for public statements of support from the environmental community. This has forced staid green groups like the Sierra Club, a member-driven organization that cut its organizational teeth fighting hydro projects in the Western United States, into heated internal debates on wind's merits and how wind should best be developed.

The discussion isn't new, nor surprising, only the accents have changed. In the early 1990s, erstwhile British wind developers ran into a buzz saw of criticism for plans to erect a string of projects--small by today's standards--on valued highlands. Out of this bitter conflict grew the British Wind Energy Association's "Best Practice Guidelines for Wind Energy Development." The ground-breaking booklet takes wind developers from site selection to eventual decommissioning. The Guidelines' preamble spells out the intent: a developers approach to a project can be judged by "the degree to which that approach follows the spirit and principles" of the guidelines.

Resolving Conflict

BWEA's guidelines were shepherded along by Michael Harper, at the time BWEA's executive director but formerly a campaigner with Friends of the Earth. He employed the then relatively novel idea of bringing in a professional facilitator to work with the warring groups. Pippa Hyam took on the daunting task.

Britain's nascent wind industry was blindsided by the ferocity of the attacks, says Hyam, currently with Dialogue by Design, a firm specializing in conflict resolution. "The industry felt betrayed."

 

Hyam says Harper was able to put the conflict into perspective. He realized that these "30-million pound (40-million Euros) projects were of a "significant industrial scale." Harper was able to "convince BWEA that the wind industry needed to become more transparent and more engaged with the public than any other industry," especially coal and oil. This was necessary to build trust and credibility with what Hyam calls "stakeholders". The feeling at the time was, she says, "If we were to get wind off the ground in this country (Britain) we have to go about it in a new way."

In a courageous move, BWEA heard from some groups critical of wind in Britain, including the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Countryside Council of Wales, as well as from organizations with serious reservations, such as English Nature and the Royal Society for the protection of Birds. Even the notorious anti-wind Country Guardians participated, though they didn't endorse the final document. Pro-wind Green activists Friends of the Earth was represented by Fiona Weightman who had taken Harper's position after he moved to BWEA. FOE was a strong supporter of renewable energy and a critic of conventional technologies. (Weightman eventually went on to become instrumental in the formation of the Wind Energy Association in her native New Zealand.)

Hyam, like facilitators on both sides of the Atlantic, used a consensus building process. Even so, she describes the final meeting as "incredibly tortuous" as they went through every paragraph in the guidelines line by line.

 

The objective, says Hyam, was a reference point for "the industry to say, we're using these [guidelines], check on us to see if we're following these practices." For example, wind companies handed them out to farmers, she says.

British Success

Harper, now with Northern Ireland wind developer B9, says it's "difficult to gauge" how successful the guidelines were once the practices it advocated become industry standards. "They were very important at the time," he says. Another British developer, EcoGen's Tim Kirby, says such documents are useful as a starting point. "I do generally work to BWEA's guidelines," notes Kirby, a veteran of BWEA's formative days.

The European Wind Energy Association followed BWEA's example and incorporated the guidelines as its own in 1999. Last year the Australian Wind Energy Association published its version. Like its British and European predecessors, preparation of the Australian guidelines were subsidized with public funds. Though modeled after BWEA's effort nearly a decade prior, AusWEA's guidelines were adapted to Australian conditions and updated with a more extensive section on birds.

NWCC's Siting Handbook

Despite close cultural ties across the anglophone world, neither wind association in the United States nor Canada adopted best practice guidelines. Both national trade associations have discussed the topic, but neither have taken action.

"In the end we decided on a "toolbox to let permitting officials pick and choose the ideas they thought best suited to their needs, says the American Wind Association's Tom Gray. "There was a lot of concern about a "one-size-fits-all" approach" that was too difficult to get right.

The "toolbox" that Gray refers to is the National Wind Coordinating Committee's handbook titled "Permitting of Wind Energy Facilities," dubbed among cognoscenti, the "siting handbook". In 1997, NWCC began collecting information on "how siting was done, what people took into consideration," explains Ed DeMeo, then with the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. The handbook was intended solely to provide information to decisionmakers--specifically regulators--and not act as guidelines for the industry to follow.

Anticipating the second great American wind boom expected for 1998-1999, the wind industry wanted to head off potential conflict, especially over birds being killed in California's Altamont Pass. Like BWEA before them, they sought out a firm specializing in conflict resolution, in AWEA's case, the aptly named Resolve.

Unlike the British experience, Resolve's facilitator worked through the NWCC, an independent group supported by the U.S. Department of Energy through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Published in 1998, NWCC's handbook primarily used observations from projects in California. The recent revision (2002) incorporated experience elsewhere. The principal contributors of the NWCC report represented industry or state and federal agencies. Of the principal contributors none represented groups that had challenged wind development.

Comparing the Guidelines

The format of the Anglo-Australian guidelines follows the phases of project development from beginning to end. NWCC's siting handbook explains the permitting process in the United States and then lists issues that might arise, such as noise or visual intrusion. Each document includes useful appendix material with addresses of interested parties, statutes, and reference documents. AusWEA's guidelines provides valuable references to International Electrotechnical Commission standards, and International Energy Agency recommended practices as well as related documents in Europe and North America.

Proscriptive Guidelines

The British and Australian documents are proscriptive as the titles "Best Practice" suggest, that is, to do the job right, these are the practices to follow. "Our guidelines had to follow the UK planning process, which are extremely proscriptive," says facilitator Hyam.

Consider that AusWEA's goal for the guidelines is to ensure that projects "are appropriately sited and sensitively developed." While the guidelines are voluntary, AusWEA intends for interest groups to use them as a "benchmark to judge whether or not a project is appropriate." BWEA is even more direct and "expects its members and all responsible developers to adhere to them."

The NWCC document takes a different path and is descriptive only. The U.S. document doesn't say "this is the best way to develop a project," rather it states, "some do it this way," or that "some agencies require this."

The two types of documents serve different purposes. Best practice guidelines become defacto standards of conduct that all interested parties can use to judge projects and their proponents. NWCC's siting handbook,in contrast, is a compendium of background information on wind farms and their potential impact. NREL's Brian Parsons, who contributed to the siting handbook, says "it's something we point to when people ask us questions" about siting. It wasn't intended to be proscriptive.

Where proscription is necessary, such as in state statutes or regulations, some planners go further. "Minnesota goes well beyond the siting handbook," says Larry Hartman of the Environmental Quality Board, the agency that issues permits for wind plants on the state's famed Buffalo Ridge.

Decommissioning

The difference between Best Practice proscriptions and NWCC's siting handbook is well illustrated on the topic of decommissioning, long a sore point with environmental activists in California who have called for removal of abandoned wind turbines in the state.

Both BWEA and AusWEA include a prominent section on decommissioning. They state that "should the wind energy project cease" generation, the "owner/operator should remove the turbines and return the site as close as practical to its original state." BWEA suggests removing the turbines after six months, AusWEA doesn't specify a time limit but does note that "inactive wind turbines are a bad advertisement for wind energy."

NWCC's document takes a different tack and doesn't say what should be done, instead describing what decommissioning entails: removal of the turbine, tower, cabling, infrastructure, and foundation to below grade. The siting handbook does advise that a "wind developer may be required to return the property to its natural state or prior use."

AusWEA goes much further and suggests that at sites where native vegetation was removed during operation and decommissioning the operator should plan to revegetate the site with native plants of "local provenance". A subtle detail to many but a significant issue to environmentalists who demand not only revegetation, but restoration, including the use of plants endemic to the site. Seeds for native plant restoration are often far more expensive than seeds of plants traditionally used to quickly establish a ground cover.

In contrast NWCC's siting handbook simply says many permitting agencies include conditions for . . . "restoration of tower pads, access roads, and other areas." The only reference to native plants in the siting document is a suggestion that "invasive (noxious) weedy plant species" may need to be controlled to "allow native vegetation to be re-established." There's no hint that agencies or the developer might re-introduce native plants removed from the site.

Visual Amenity

On the controversial issue of visual intrusion all three documents offer helpful guidance. NWCC's handbook provides a good overall summary of the issues involved in assessing the visual impact of wind turbines from turbine spacing and storage yards to road cuts in steep terrain and aviation obstruction marking. The siting handbook suggests presenting visual simulations to regulators and the public to help them envision what the project will look like after it is built. AusWEA's guidelines are refreshing in their frankness and "highly recommends" using landscape architects or other experts in visualization "given that the visual impact of the development is likely to be one of the most significant issues" in the environmental impact assessment.

BWEA's guidelines suggests that wind turbines should not be located so close to homes "that they unreasonably affect the amenity of such properties through noise, shadow flicker, visual domination or reflected light" sometimes known as the "disco effect". BWEA encourages developers to identify a "zone of visual influence" from nearby vantage points, and indirectly urges proponents to consider cumulative impacts from multiple projects on a viewshed. The latter concern was recently raised by a landscape architect in the Republic of Ireland where numerous projects were being evaluated individually without regard for the others proposed nearby.

Consultation

Similarly, all three emphasize the importance of consultation with planners, regulators, and the public as well as early consultation with local interest groups. They also encourage the use of "scoping" processes to narrow the issues of concern. BWEA goes so far to stress that "dialogue and consultation" between developers and the public should start "prior to the erection of anemometers." BWEA's suggestion may well quell the rumors that begin running through a community as soon as meteorological masts are erected. And the rumors are rarely positive. The timing of first consultation has become an issue among some environmentalists in the United States, notably on the east coast where major projects were presented as a fait acompli.

Birds and Bats

Few issues elicit more heated debate between wind's proponents and environmental activists than wind energy's effect on birds and bats. It's one of the "hot-button" issues that quickly come to the fore in a siting conflict. All three documents discuss the role of thorough biological review of projects, as well as pre- and post-construction biological surveys.

Reflecting it's more recent origins, that is, post awareness of the problem in the Altamont Pass, AusWEA's guidelines incorporate an extensive appendix section on how to approach the issue of birds, bats, and wind turbines. As elsewhere in the document, AusWEA's approach is suprisingly direct. No namby-pamby beating around the bush for the Aussies, "Inappropriate developments may represent a risk to birds and bats if this issue is not taken into consideration" early on. Elsewhere, they are even more blunt, "Rotating wind turbines represent a risk to bird and bat populations. This is a significant issue to the industry . . ."

AusWEA "strongly recommends . . . scientifically rigorous study of the activities over all seasons of birds and bats . . ." In the appendix they describe what that this includes targeted investigations that are "necessary to obtain general data on bird and bat use of sites and their surrounding region" to enable the developer and their regulators to assess the risk of collisions. The aim of these utilization studies is to "quantify general bird and bat usage of the site under a range of conditions, times of day, and times of year."

Usage studies are labor intensive, requiring on-the-ground personnel. They are also more costly and time consuming than simple "walk through" pre-construction site visits. NWCC's siting handbook simply refers readers to its much more extensive "guidance document" on wind energy and birds.

Again, criticism of some proposed large wind projects in the Eastern United States have focused on the developer's reliance on "reconnaissance" or walk-through site visits that concluded birds would not be an issue. In this case the criticism was formally lodged by someone who was familiar with birds and concluded that studies of the issue in open arid lands of the western United States may not be applicable on forested ridgetops on the east seaboard.

BWEA's guidelines also suggests that there may be a need for "on-going monitoring . . . for a defined number of years post construction. That's essentially what happened after the fact in the Altamont Pass and the studies are still ongoing nearly a decade later. Perhaps if developers had conducted more thorough site surveys before massive development began, the bird issue wouldn't be dogging the industry today.

Use It or Lose It

While BWEA's guidelines have become the industry standard in Britain, and AusWEA hopes to do the same downunder with its version, few environmentalists in the United States have heard of the documents or NWCC's siting handbook. They have no standards for comparison and react to each project and each developer as if a wind turbine had never been installed anywhere else before. Maybe this is why the NWCC's three-year work plan includes the possibility of drafting best practice guidelines for the United States. More than a decade after Michael Harper and Pippa Hyam broached the idea to BWEA, the American Wind Energy Association--long reluctant to set standards of conduct for its members--has included best practice guidelines in its recently-released strategic plan. Randy Swisher, AWEA's executive director, explains that the guidelines will be helpful in "protecting the industry's credibility." The Americans may be too late for the wind rush of 2003, but they may be in time to catch the next big wave.

Paul Gipe is the author of several books on wind energy including the forthcoming Wind Power for Farm, Home, & Business, available in early 2004.


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