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Getting Residential Wind Turbine Approval

A wind turbine for our new workshop and guest apartment is the second residential wind project to be approved by the Northumberland County government.

When we powered our house with 48 solar panels, nobody much cared (except for one neighbor, who thought they were ugly – my wife Bette told him to look the other way when he drove by). The path to an off-grid turbine-powered structure had many more twists.

In Northumberland County, wind turbines are treated as conditional use in all zoning districts but R-3 (residential restricted), where it isn’t allowed at all. Our building site – 22 acres of woods about ½ mile west of our house – is zoned A-1 (agricultural).

In mid-August of 2016, we submitted our application to the county and sent an information package to all the adjacent property owners. We also sent an email out to neighbors to let them know about our plans (with lots of links to specs and relevant research on noise, risks to birds, and effects on property values). We invited everyone to call or email with questions and comments.

We started our research into wind turbines shortly after we bought the woods in December of 2015, so we felt that we had a solid foundation for our plan. We settled on a smaller turbine – a 1 kW Bergey with an 8’3” rotor diameter – because the workshop and apartment would not be occupied full time and we designed the structure to be energy efficient. And a smaller turbine would spin at lower wind speeds (Bette ran a recording anemometer for six months; it showed an average wind speed of 10 MPH).

To minimize demand, we specified high R-value structural insulated panels (SIPs) for the walls and roof, high-SEER mini-split heat pumps for cooling, and wood stoves for heat. If it turned out that our planned occasional use required more electricity than we expected, we could add batteries.

Before we applied for the turbine permit, we had never been to a board of supervisors hearing. Lynton Land introduced us to other NAPS members who gave us good advice for working with the board.

Bette knew our district’s supervisor, Tommy Tomlin, from her time on the Dividing Creek Association board. I invited him to walk our property with me so I could describe our project. We visited Judy and Gordon Burgess to see the first residential wind turbine in the county. They referred us to a long-time neighbor, who told us that she had no problems with a turbine in the neighborhood. I met with Luttrell Tadlock and asked him how the meetings typically progressed, and gave him the key points of our argument for the turbine.

A few neighbors responded to our broadcast email. Some were supportive, some raised objections, but most neighbors were silent. The family closest to our site was supportive; objections came from those who lived further away.

We answered the objections with the most objective information we could find: an NREL study of small turbine noise levels, an article from U.S. Fish & Wildlife on bird mortality, the eagle nest location map from the Center for Conservation Biology. Objectors continued to object, either ignoring or discounting the information we sent them, but we continued anyway, copying everybody in the neighborhood. Much later, a couple of neighbors observed that the objections got a little overheated, but our replies remained calm and reasonable. I think that helped us with the silent neighbors.

At the board meeting on September 8th, I gave a short description of our plan and the reasons it shouldn’t cause problems for neighbors and wildlife. Four neighbors got up to talk about the consequences of allowing a howling mechanical maelstrom to loom over the neighborhood: bald eagle decapitations, destruction of the historic integrity of the neighborhood, aesthetic degradation. Two more mailed their complaints to the board. Gordon and Judy Burgess spoke for us, and invited the objectors to ask questions about their turbine. Nobody asked. Bette closed by saying that our proposal was based on research and experience, and that we lived in the neighborhood and would not propose anything that would damage anyone’s quality of life, including our own.

After the hearing, we sent our notes on the meeting to all neighbors, and invited their corrections and additions. We hired Rawleigh Simmons, a lawyer who frequents county meetings, to advise us; he also made a few calls on our behalf. Then we developed a Power- Point deck that hit six topics that arose at the hearing. We showed pictures of the proposed system, answered two questions from the supervisors, and replied to objections in four categories: noise, risks to birds, appearance, and effects on historic resources. We used quotes from our antagonists to set up our replies.

At the October 13th supervisors meeting, the public was not invited to comment on our proposal. The board thumbed through our PowerPoint deck, briefly discussed our proposal, and voted 5 to 0 to approve.

We’ve been asked about our break-even point for our off-grid wind turbine. The turbine, inverter, batteries, backup generator, and construction will cost a little more than twice what the NNEC would charge to connect us to the grid. On the cost reduction side, tax incentives for residential wind aren’t nearly as generous as they are for solar panels; electricity is pretty cheap, and our workshop won’t use a lot of it. So from a short-term financial perspective, this is not a great solution.

We chose to use a turbine because we wanted to limit our demand for fossil fuels (Virginia burned 795,000 tons of coal in August of 2016 - see related article). We didn’t want to tear up the woods between the site and the nearest power pole. And we wanted the structure to be as self-sufficient as possible. From our perspective, break-even starts when we get our certificate of occupancy.

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