Want to build a 200-megawatt solar energy power plant? No problem.
How about a 500-megawatt wind farm? Buckle your seat belt.
The Navajo County Board of Supervisors this week approved two giant alternative energy installations near Holbrook.
The 2,000-acre sea of solar panels slid right on through.
The 52,000-acre wind farm blew up a storm of opposition.
Both won unanimous approval — but not before people living in the wide-open, high-desert spaces around the proposed wind farm voiced a long list of concerns about whether more than a hundred 820-foot-tall windmills will hurt property values, cause health problems, wipe out already hard-pressed birds and ruin their rural, windswept lifestyles.
“This is our home,” said one resident. “We have no other place to go. We wanted to get away from the light pollution, the noise pollution, the congestion. It will bring all we escaped back to us. Can you understand that? A wind farm built in this location is going to destroy our quality of life.”
Another resident presented a Power Point presentation saying the law requires the county to ensure a power plant has “zero” effect on the “public health, safety and general welfare” of surrounding residents. He offered a grab bag of news articles and studies suggesting that wind farms reduce property values and generate low-frequency sounds that affect heart rate and other health measures. As a result, any windmill farm should be at least 8.7 miles from the nearest house, he said.
“Every property owner has the right to enjoy his or her property — but my family and many others will be forced to move,” he said.
On the other hand, Rob Gardner, manager of the Western Wind Development, said the project will comply with every county ordinance when it comes to sound, health, fire protection and visual impacts. Moreover, after concerns raised at the planning commission, the company agreed to triple the setbacks from the edge of the property.
The wind farm will produce 500 megawatts of power and include 220 MW of battery storage, so it can generate power when the wind’s blowing and release it into the grid when the wind dies down. The parent company, AES, is developing wind, solar and conventional power generating projects throughout the nation.
The project will generate 400 construction jobs and 25 operator jobs. Owners will pay an estimated $46 million in property taxes over the 30-year project life. When it goes on line in 2025, the wind farm will start pumping $1.6 million in property taxes into local schools each year.
Moreover, the land now belongs to the Aztec Cattle Company, which will continue to graze cattle in and around the windmills.
“We have no air emissions during operations — no solid or liquid hazardous waste. We’ll avoid archeological sites. Bird impacts will be avoided or mitigated. Site restoration and revegetation (after decommissioning) are legally required,” said Gardner. “We’re seeking no variances from your wind or noise ordinances. Navajo County has one of the most robust ordinances I’ve ever seen in the United States. We’re not only meeting your requirements — we’re exceeding them.”
He said the permit requires the company to continually monitor noise levels, and make changes if they exceed the county’s legal limits.
The combined output of the wind farm and the nearby solar power plant will nearly replace the 1GW output of the Cholla coal-fired power plant. Two of the Cholla units have already shut down, with two more slated to go dark about the time the wind and solar plants come on-line. Coal-fired plants have far worse documented health effects on nearby residents than wind farms — not to mention the contributions to global warming.
One study estimated that emissions from coal-fired plants in Europe cause at least 15,000 to 19,000 deaths annually. (https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/abecff#:~:text=In%20particular%20coal%20combustion%20emissions,al%202011%2C%20Lockwood%202012).)
Both the wind farm and the solar power plant will lie about six miles south Interstate 40 in the mostly empty desert stretch between Joseph City and Holbrook. They will both hook up to the existing high-voltage power line connected to the Cholla Power plant. They add to several other giant wind and solar installations approved in the past few years.
The distraught residents failed to sway a single supervisor – and complained about Chairwoman Dawnafe Whitesinger’s limits on speakers. She limited the time each person spoke, and admonished them to not repeat points made by earlier speakers.
“We care about you and I thank you for being here,” said Supervisor Daryl Seymore. However, he noted that if people shut down coal-fired plants, they need to replace the energy lost.
“Overwhelmingly, people want to shut down the coal plants,” said Seymore. “But we’ve got to replace that energy somehow. You all have cell phones – don’t you? Well, I can pull up on the Internet that they’re a health hazard. I even looked up ceiling fans. They’re a health hazard. My wife likes ceiling fans. But we’re not going to get a divorce because she likes ceiling fans and I don’t.”
He added, “if I purchase property with a lot of empty land all around, I know that if it’s vacant, it can change.”
The Internet does bristle with studies attempting to measure the impact of windmills on nearby residents.
One study on PMC PubMed Central (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4256253/) concluded that the low-frequency sound produced by the giant spinning windmills can affect heart rate and blood pressure – with a possible connection to headaches, sleep-related problems and even tinnitus and vertigo.
The review of a large number of studies concluded, “Exposure to wind turbines does seem to increase the risk of annoyance and self-reported sleep disturbance in a dose-response relationship. There appears, though, to be a tolerable level of around LAeq of 35 dB. Of the many other claimed health effects of wind turbine noise exposure reported in the literature, however, no conclusive evidence could be found. Future studies should focus on investigations aimed at objectively demonstrating whether or not measurable health-related outcomes can be proven to fluctuate depending on exposure to wind turbines.”
However, applying any of that research to a particular project remains problematic.
The wind farm developers said the nearest house is 1.1 miles away from the nearest windmill. That’s further away that most of the studies cited in the meta-analysis – and the effect of the sound declines with distance. Moreover, the developers said their sound studies suggest the low-frequency noise will be only about 5 or 6 decibels outside the nearest house – below the threshold cited in the metadata analysis.
Moreover, low-frequency sounds are generated from other sources, including highways and indoor fans, concluded the researchers.
Homeowners countered that the 1.1-mile distance takes into account only homes built with a permit. Other people didn’t take out a permit before building – and so didn’t wind up in the official figures.
Moreover, few of the existing studies involved the gigantic, 830-foot-tall windmills that now dominate new wind farms. It’s unclear how far the sound will travel from those installations – especially the low frequency sounds.
Analyzing more clear-cut effects like bird deaths faces similar uncertainties.
Some studies estimate that windmills kill anywhere from 140,000 to a million birds a year. On the other hand, communications towers kill an estimated 6.5 million birds, power lines 25 million, windows a billion and cats as many as 4 billion. All that has contributed to a documented 30% decline in birds in North America since 1970, a loss of 3 billion birds.
But the number of windmills is increasing rapidly, along with their size. That could increase the toll on birds.
The West Camp Wind Farm consulted with Arizona Game and Fish and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to minimize the effect on birds. Game and Fish recommended making sure windmills were at least least half a mile from water sources and at least a mile from known bald eagle habitat. Some wind farms have also experimented with systems that shut off the windmills or use sounds to scare off approaching birds.
Gardner said the gigantic windmills will have a radar system to turn on blinking red lights only when an airplane approaches, leaving them dark most of the night. The 830-foot-tall windmills will be 77 stories tall — about twice the height of the state’s tallest building. The Empire State Building is 102 stories tall.
In contrast to the lively debate about the wind farm, the 200 MW Obed Meadow Solar Project drew no public comment. The installation will also include battery storage to feed power into the grid when the sun’s not shining. It will generate 350 to 400 construction jobs — but only about three full-time jobs once it’s up and running.
Developers hope to have the plant generating power before the end of next year. The installation will include collector lines, a power station and a 230 KV trunk line connected to the Cholla substation. The facility will include a six-foot chain link perimeter fence, a 10,000 gallon cistern for water storage and fire suppression, and two storage tanks with about 900 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel.
One recent study attempted to figure out how much carbon is pumped into the atmosphere in the manufacture and operation of coal, wind and solar plants.
The manufacture and operation of windmills releases 99% less carbon than coal-fired plants, 98% less than natural gas plants and 75% less than solar plants, according to an analysis by Bernstein Research, reported in Forbes magazine.
Wind power generates a total of 11 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity generated, compared to 44 grams for solar, 450 grams for natural gas and 1,000 grams for coal. The giant windmills are even more efficient – and release a total of about 6 grams per kilowatt.
Interestingly, nuclear power generates 9 grams per kilowatt.
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