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Published August 04, 2009, 12:00 AM

Forum editorial: Regulators can avert prairie fire

The wind filling the sails of alternative energy might slacken if regulators fail to address the concerns of wind farm neighbors.

The wind filling the sails of alternative energy might slacken if regulators fail to address the concerns of wind farm neighbors. The new industry, which is supposed to be one of the jewels in the renewable energy crown, will lose its appeal rapidly if the rush to build wind farms blows out traditional rural living values.

The signs should concern the industry and regulatory agencies. In North Dakota, property owners and businesses near Luverne objected to wind tower setbacks, contending both health risks from low frequency sound and business damage from sound and proximity of towers and turbines. In Minnesota, a proposed wind development near Hawley has raised similar objections.

Tower setback regulations are established by public utilities regulators – the Public Service Commission in North Dakota; the Public Utilities Commission in Minnesota. The rules are not the same in both states, but both commissions have some latitude in tower placement decisions. They can, for example, require longer setbacks at specific sites, depending on circumstances. The North Dakota PSC made such adjustments in the Luverne project.

But it might not be enough to dispel the rising grumble that the PSC is so committed to growing wind power that regulators are working more in concert with the industry than protecting rural communities from over-development. It’s a legitimate worry that goes beyond wind power, extending to pipelines, power lines, oil well pollution, oil patch road damage and power plant locations. But that’s another story.

Wind power is one of the “green” energy alternatives with great potential. But as with any new energy source (think ethanol), initial enthusiasm masks practical development problems. Wind farms have become both symbols of a new energy future and, in some eyes, blights on the landscape. When those eyes live on the landscape, regulators are obligated to be especially sensitive about the impact of covering thousands of acres with forests of wind towers.

Regulators will respond that they are doing exactly that. But the perception among residents of targeted rural neighborhoods in Minnesota and North Dakota is that regulatory commissions are little more than extensions of the industry. It’s an easy leap to make when the regulatory climate, in North Dakota at least, seems tilted in favor of the big corporations and cooperatives that finance wind projects.

Fair or not, accurate or not, regulators might be dealing with a prairie fire in wind country if they fail to respond to concerns of the neighbors.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.