Rural U.S. communities benefit from wind development. In Texas, the state with the most installed wind capacity, an analysis of rural western counties showed the economic activity to be $520,000 per MW of installed wind capacity. On a national level, local landowners receive about $180 million in lease payments from wind producers, and over an eight-year period county-level income increased by $11,000 per MW of installed capacity. However, overly restrictive setback requirements can prevent farm families and rural school districts from receiving the economic benefits of local wind development.
A setback is the distance a building or structure, such as a wind turbine, must be built from a building, property line, street, body of water, or other place that needs safeguarding. In general, the level of government that has jurisdiction over the land determines setback requirements. Wind turbine setbacks vary greatly across the nation; municipalities may control local setbacks (known as “home rule”) while the federal government may control federal highway setbacks.
Some states have outdated setback requirements or have passed restrictive laws for wind turbine setback requirements, such as requiring a wind turbine to be more than 1,000 feet away from the nearest property line. A setback of 1,000 feet is nearly twice as deep as average required setbacks and seven times some setback requirements for oil and gas drilling.
Moreover, some state or municipal setback requirements are the same regardless of turbine size, so for instance a group of ten 500 kW turbines standing 200 feet tall could be restricted to the same setback requirements as a 3.0 MW turbine, which is more than twice as tall at 488 feet. Since turbine heights vary so greatly, states need a setback requirement that recognizes the reduced impacts related to small turbines. A one-size-fits-all setback limit not only adversely affects small turbines, but also could become outdated for large turbines as turbine size continues to increase.
In order to adapt to the diversity of turbines and their expected increase in size, state lawmakers should consider modifying setback requirements to a more adaptable limit that meets the needs of both rapidly growing turbines and small-sized distributed turbines. Instead of a setback distance measured in feet, the setback limit could be measured by the ratio of the turbine height plus blade tip, as done in states such as Pennsylvania. This will ensure the setback will protect neighboring property as turbines increase in size and prevent excessive regulation for small turbines.
Moreover, state lawmakers should consider measuring the setback distance from the nearest residential structure instead of the property line. Many rural residents live acres from their property line and those residents would not be at risk for turbine malfunction. In the unlikely case that property values decline due to the proximity to a wind turbine, the developer could be required to compensate the property owner for the property’s depreciation. Restrictive setback limits are an economic disadvantage to all Americans touched by the wind industry: rural homeowners risk losing the opportunity to receive monthly income from leasing their property to wind developers, while wind developers will not be able to develop wind projects. Thus, measuring the setback limit from the nearest structure instead of the property line will allow for continued economic growth
Modifying the setback requirements of wind turbines can continue to protect the health and safety of residents, grow rural economies, and ease burdensome permitting for wind developers across the country—ultimately helping to create more local wind jobs.