Wind Energy Planning: Results of the American Planning Association Survey

Current Practice, Challenges, and Resource Needs

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy issued 20 percent Wind Energy by 2030: Increasing Wind Energy's Contribution to U.S. Electricity Supply, a report examining the feasibility of using wind energy to provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs by 2030. The report found that the U.S. has the capability to achieve this goal, but that challenges and barriers must be overcome. These include developing transmission infrastructure, streamlining siting and permitting procedures, and increasing wind turbine installations. Planners are well-suited and well-placed to address these issues at the local level within their communities by helping to create policies and regulations that allow for appropriate wind energy development. Policies and regulations may include proper safety and siting standards and address existing barriers to renewable energy.

The American Planning Association (APA), in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Clarion Associates, and the American Wind Energy Association, and with funding from DOE, is working to produce a guidebook on community planning strategies for successful wind energy implementation. As part of the first phase of this project, APA developed a survey to assess the current state of wind energy planning in communities across the country, discover what challenges planners are facing in planning for, regulating, and implementing wind energy facilities, and ask what information or resources would be most helpful to them in planning for wind energy.

Survey Background

The APA survey was conducted online using Zoomerang. It was targeted at planners who are grappling with the issue of wind energy planning in their work or communities, and was intended as an information-gathering tool to inform the development of the final guidebook. APA launched the survey on July 2, 2010, and announced the launch to APA's approximately 40,000 members in the July 6 edition of APA Interact, APA's bimonthly e-newsletter. An invitation to take the survey was also posted on the main page of the APA website, as well as the project page, and was emailed to 61 planners who had attended the Planning for Wind Energy facilitated discussion session at the 2010 APA National Planning Conference. The survey will remain open throughout the project duration as a way to continue gathering input from planners on this topic.

Summary of Findings

Attitudes and Experience with Wind

  • Over four-fifths of respondents reported positive attitudes toward wind energy, though some expressed reservations about potential negative impacts of this technology and the complexity of the issues involved.
  • Three-fifths of respondents estimated that public opinion toward wind energy in their communities was more positive than negative, though not overwhelmingly so.
  • Over two-thirds of respondents had worked on a wind energy ordinance; over half reported that their communities had drafted ordinances, with just under one-quarter of respondents reporting visioning and plan-writing involving wind energy issues.
  • Planners are the local government staff most likely to be engaged in wind energy issues.
  • Over two-thirds of respondents reported working with small wind compared to just under half working with large wind. Similarly, four-fifths had an interest in small wind versus just over half reporting an interest in large wind.
  • Only one-third of respondents reported addressing community wind in their communities, but almost two-thirds wanted more information on this topic.

Current Practice

  • Size thresholds for small wind energy systems varied from 10 to 100 kW, and a few communities have added a "micro" wind category for systems under 5 kW.
  • Setback requirements, height limits, and noise thresholds are common ordinance provisions for small and community wind energy systems. Large wind ordinances also commonly include abandonment clauses and require environmental review.
  • More respondents (50 percent) reported small wind energy projects in their communities than large wind (24 percent) or community wind (14 percent). One-third of respondents have yet to see wind energy turbines installed in their communities.

Successes and Challenges

  • Respondents found that having a good ordinance in place and education and outreach efforts to the public were important in successfully implementing wind energy systems.
  • Respondents' top five most commonly identified challenges were scenic/aesthetic impacts, noise impacts, height restrictions, wildlife impacts, and property value issues. Public concerns and a lack of information about wind energy systems were also mentioned.

Information Needs

  • Respondents' most commonly identified issues of importance were information on small wind, managing public concerns, noise impacts, scenic and aesthetic impacts, technical information about wind power generation, and mapping of optimal wind conditions within a jurisdiction.
  • Respondents feel that there is a lack of good information and helpful resources available; they requested model and sample ordinance language, case studies, and information on potential impacts of wind turbines.

Results of the Survey:
Current Practice, Challenges, and Resource Needs

A more detailed description of the questions we asked and the results we received follows below.

Survey Respondents

To begin, we asked respondents to tell us some information about themselves to gain a better sense of the contexts in which they are addressing wind energy issues. Of the 180 survey responses received through September 15, 2010, 135 (84 percent) identified themselves as APA members, and 91 (57 percent) were AICP-certified planners. The majority of respondents (87 percent) were public-sector planners, with 10 percent from the private sector, 2 percent from academia, 1 percent from nonprofits, and 6 percent from other sectors, including the federal government (respondents could select more than one response to this question). All but the following eight states were represented by the respondents: Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Additionally, a few responses came from outside the United States. Just under half of the respondents (43 percent) work in both rural and urban contexts, with 27 percent working in only an urban context and 27 percent working only in a rural setting. More than half of respondents work with small or medium-sized municipalities (29 and 27 percent, respectively), 40 percent work at the county level, and around 10 percent each work in the contexts of large cities (100,000+ population), regions, and federal government (respondents could select more than one category).

Attitudes Toward Wind Energy

We asked respondents to tell us how they and their communities viewed wind energy. Respondents reported largely positive attitudes toward wind energy (85 percent versus 12 percent neutral and 4 percent negative), with 41 percent indicating a "very positive" attitude. We then asked respondents about their experiences with wind energy. Just over half reported positive experiences, with only 11 percent reporting a "very positive" experience. "Neutral" responses were 28 percent, and negative responses were 17 percent (4 percent reported a "very negative" experience). See Figure 1.

Figure 1: Attitude Toward and Experience with Wind Energy

Figure 1

When invited to comment upon what had influenced their experiences with wind energy, respondents referenced a general interest in environmental or sustainability issues as the basis for their opinions on wind energy; concerns about climate change, energy independence and sustainability were common responses to this question. Some respondents mentioned research performed by other agencies such as the American Planning Association or the American Wind Energy Association, as well as their personal research on wind energy. Public interest in, demand for, or resistance to alternative energy was a factor for some respondents. Other responses to this question included potential cost savings associated with wind energy, awareness of communities with successful wind energy projects, concerns about the objectivity of information available from wind energy proponents, and improvements in wind energy technology.

When asked to estimate levels of public interest in wind energy within their communities, respondents reported moderate (34 percent) to high (42 percent, with 18 percent reporting "very high") interest levels; one-quarter reported somewhat to very low interest.

We then asked respondents to estimate the percentage of public opinion for versus against wind energy in their community. Over half (60 percent) of responses reported more community support than opposition, 20 percent reported attitudes at 50-50, and 15 percent reported more opposition than support. Of the responses showing a majority of community support, over half were in the 60 to 70 percent support range.

Involvement with Wind Energy Planning

To assess the current state of wind energy planning, we asked respondents several questions about the types of wind energy planning activities with which they have been involved. Ordinance writing was the most common activity of respondents, followed by research and data collection. See Table 1 below.

Table 1: Involvement in Wind Energy Planning Activities

Table 1

We also asked respondents to tell us how their communities had addressed wind energy planning. The most common responses (see Table 2) were adoption or development of wind energy ordinances and codification of wind energy permitting standards. Other communities addressed wind energy in their visioning processes, established comprehensive plan policies on this topic), or conducted public outreach and education programs. Only a handful of respondents indicated that their communities were working on financial or development incentives or wind access easement issues.

Table 2: How Respondents' Communities Have Addressed Wind Energy

Table 2

Finally, we asked where wind energy expertise lay within local government staff (see Table 3), and the majority of respondents reported that planners fit this role. One-third of respondents reported that no local government staff has wind energy expertise. Consultants were used as local wind energy experts for 18 percent of respondents, with others noting the roles of engineers, building inspectors, attorneys, and energy or sustainability managers.

Table 3: Local Government Staff with Expertise in Wind Energy

Table 3

Wind Energy System Scales

We asked respondents to tell us about what types of wind energy systems were being implemented within their communities (see Figure 2). Most communities categorize wind energy systems based on generating capacity of a turbine or wind energy project, and we used common size thresholds of less than 100 kW for small/residential wind, 100 kW to 1 MW for community wind, and greater than 1 MW for large or utility scale wind. Most respondents (69 percent) reported small-scale wind being addressed in their community; less than half (42 percent) were working with large wind, and just over one-third (36 percent) reported local community wind systems. For 15 percent of respondents, wind energy systems were not being addressed.

Figure 2: Categories of Wind Energy Systems in Respondents' Communities*

Figure 2

Because there is a wide range of definitions given for different scales of wind energy, however, we also asked respondents to tell us if their size thresholds or definitions differed from those we provided. A number of respondents reported that their ordinances set a lower threshold for "small" wind energy systems; these numbers ranged from 10 to 25 kW, with 25 kW being a fairly common choice. In addition, several respondents included a category of "micro" or "mini" wind energy systems, or systems with a generating capacity of 10 kW or less. Other methods for differentiating between different system types included those based on turbine height or whether the energy generated by the system will be used onsite or sold to other users.

Wind Energy Ordinances

To further assess the current state of wind energy planning, we asked questions relating to the content of local ordinances regulating small, community, and large-scale wind energy systems (see Table 4). It was unclear, however, whether a lack of response meant that the community's ordinance did not include that provision, or whether the community did not regulate that wind energy system scale at all.

For small wind energy systems, the five most commonly cited provisions in use by respondents' communities were setbacks (56 percent), height limits (51 percent), permitting small wind energy systems as an accessory use (38 percent), noise thresholds (37 percent), and permitting small wind energy systems as a conditional or special use (35 percent). Eighteen percent of respondents said small wind was not regulated in their communities.

For community wind, the five most commonly cited provisions in use by respondents' communities were setbacks (32 percent), permitting community wind as a conditional or special use (30 percent), noise thresholds (23 percent), height limits (23 percent), and restricting community wind from certain districts (18 percent). Thirty-two percent of respondents said community wind was not regulated in their communities.

For large wind, the five most commonly cited provisions in use by respondents' communities were permitting large wind as a conditional or special use (31 percent), setbacks (31 percent), abandonment clauses (22 percent), environmental review (22 percent), and height limits (21 percent). One-quarter of respondents reported that large-scale wind energy systems were not regulated in their communities.

Table 4: Local Ordinance Provisions for Wind Energy

Table 4

Finally, we asked about other regulations that might impact the regulation of wind energy at the local level.

Table 5: Other Regulations Impacting Local Regulation of Wind Energy

Table 5

Although one-fourth of respondents reported that no other regulations affected local regulation of wind energy, other respondents did indicate some level of necessary intergovernmental coordination. State environmental regulations were cited by 41 percent of respondents, while 33 percent reported state wind energy regulations in effect. Federal regulations were next on the list, with 28 percent of respondents noting federal environmental regulations in play and 16 percent indicating federal military regulations. Only 12 percent of respondents noted that neighboring jurisdictions' wind regulations impacted their own, with 4 percent listing neighboring jurisdictions environmental regulations. Several respondents commented that FAA and FCC regulations also applied.

Wind Energy Projects

We asked respondents to list how many small, community, and large-scale wind energy projects had been developed in their community.

Of the 146 comments submitted, half noted at least one small-scale project, while 24 percent noted large-scale projects, and only 14 percent noted community-scale projects. Among those respondents noting small-scale wind, 78 percent counted less than 10 projects. One-third of respondents did not have any wind energy projects currently in their communities.

Wind energy projects in respondents' communities ranged in size from small residential turbines to very large wind farms. Several respondents reported that the largest project in the community was a residential turbine. In terms of energy output, the largest project reported was an 800 MW, 267-turbine project.

Challenges to Wind Energy Implementation

We provided a list of challenges to wind energy development, and asked respondents to tell us which they had encountered in their communities (see Table 5). The five most common challenges faced by respondents were scenic/aesthetic impacts (71 percent), noise impacts (63 percent), height restrictions (55 percent), wildlife impacts (48 percent), and property value issues (45 percent).

Table 6: Challenges to Wind Energy Development

Table 6

Respondents were then asked to comment about specific challenges they had faced regarding various scales of wind energy. Their comments were distilled down into these issues:

  • Uncertainties in the community about wind energy.
  • Lack of objective information on wind energy.
  • Public concern over potential impacts, particularly noise, aesthetics, safety and shadow flicker.
  • Prohibitive costs/lack of knowledge of financing mechanisms.
  • Interaction of local, state and federal regulations.
  • Availability of transmission lines.

We also asked respondents to comment about any barriers to wind energy implementation they had encountered within existing ordinances. Their comments were summarized as follows:

  • Ordinance does not address wind turbines.
  • Ordinance prohibits turbines altogether, or prohibits certain types of turbines (e.g. roof-mounted systems).
  • Ordinance contains restrictions that limit ability to install wind turbines (e.g. height limits, minimum lot sizes, setbacks).
  • Ordinance contains one set of standards for all system sizes.

Wind Energy Planning Success Stories

We asked respondents to tell us about the policies, strategies, or actions regarding wind energy implementation that had worked well, and they provided a number of comments. In their comments, many respondents suggested having a good local ordinance that addresses wind energy, whether this meant writing a new set of regulations for wind or updating an existing wind energy ordinance. Conveying accurate, meaningful information about wind projects was also a key element of wind energy implementation. Survey takers reported that taking field trips to existing wind energy projects, inviting wind energy developers to give presentations, disseminating wind energy fact sheets, and demonstrating the financial benefits of wind turbines have aided them in implementing wind energy. Finally, keeping the public involved and fostering a cooperative relationship between residents, local government, and wind energy developers was helpful.

Important Issues and Resources Needed

To gather information on which issues planners think are the most pressing in the field of wind energy, we asked respondents to rank each item on a list of wind-energy related issues according to whether it was very important, somewhat important, neutral, somewhat unimportant, or very unimportant (see Table 6). When "very important" and "somewhat important" responses were added together, the most-chosen issues of importance to planners were information on small wind (82 percent), managing public concerns (82 percent), noise impacts (77 percent), scenic and aesthetic impacts (75 percent), and technical information about wind power generation and mapping of optimal wind conditions within a jurisdiction (both at 73 percent). Information on large wind was cited by 53 percent of respondents and 61 percent cited interest in information on community wind. Model ordinance language was chosen by 62 percent of respondents.

Table 7: Important Wind Energy Issues

Table 7

We also invited respondents to tell us what they believed were the key issues facing planners in regulating wind energy. In their comments, survey takers most commonly identified the following issues:

  • A lack of accurate, non-biased information about wind energy.
  • The need to educate the public about wind energy.
  • Local ordinances that prohibit, limit or inadequately address wind energy.
  • The need to understand and properly address impacts such as noise, shadow flicker, aesthetic and wildlife impacts.
  • The need to strike the proper balance between the benefits and the potential impacts of wind energy.
  • Difficulties planning for and regulating wind energy in the face of continual technological innovation.

Finally, we asked survey respondents to suggest resources and information that would assist them in implementing wind energy projects. Their responses indicated that there is a general lack of information available on planning for and regulating wind energy. In addition to basic information about wind energy, respondents were looking for model and sample ordinance language; case studies of communities that have implemented wind energy; siting guidelines; information on potential impacts of wind turbines; hard data, particularly on wind resources, performance of wind turbines and wildlife impacts; and information on financing options.

See the survey questions at