Laws murky in battle over wind power

Source: BOB VON STERNBERG  • Minneapolis Star Tribune • Posted: Monday, November 28, 2011

Jay Nygard erected a wind turbine in his backyard next to Lake Minnetonka in Orono. He has been unable to connect it due to a legal battle with the city. With more people looking for green alternatives, the building of residential turbines is becoming a widespread issue.

On Rest Point, a spit of land jutting into Lake Minnetonka, a machine that resembles a gargantuan egg beater lazily spins whenever it catches the wind.

It’s a residential wind turbine that would provide power to the Nygard home and even feed into the electrical grid — if it were hooked up.

“It’s basically nothing more than a yard sculpture at this point,” said Jay Nygard, the turbine’s owner.

Nygard is locked in a legal battle with Orono city officials over the legality of the machine that shows little sign of being resolved anytime soon.

But this is more than a small-town tiff over one guy’s windmill; it’s emblematic of a developing trend as demand for residential wind turbines is growing locally and nationwide.

Several cities, including Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Maple Grove and Woodbury, have ordinances regulating turbines. But most local government officials have found themselves in uncharted bureaucratic waters with zoning codes and ordinances that weren’t written to regulate renewable energy projects. So the laws provide them with little or no guidance.

“This has come up pretty frequently in the past year — a lot more than in recent years,” said Brian Ross, co-owner of CR Planning, a Minneapolis firm that consults on alternative energy projects. “But people who want a turbine are finding no guidance in their local ordinances.”

What some people view as a nuisance is an effort by others to be more green.

“I can’t wait to get this up and running, so I can start reducing my carbon footprint,” said Nygard, a mechanical engineer who markets the turbines. “This is the future and I just don’t understand the not-in-my-backyard mentality.”

Orono officials have stuck to their position that Nygard’s machine “violates several ordinances,” in the words of City Administrator Janice Loftus, and are pressing their lawsuit to have it dismantled.

But precedent has not been set.

“You get calls from a city where someone wants to put up a turbine and they don’t know the answer because they’ve never had to deal with the issue before,” said Daniel Yarano, a Minneapolis lawyer who has worked on the issue.

Although no comprehensive census of local wind turbine regulations appears to have been compiled, the number appears to be growing, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

And the group’s statistics show that Minnesota ranks relatively high among states where so-called “small wind” (as opposed to the massive utility-scale “big wind” projects) are being installed.

The group found that nearly 100 small wind turbines have been erected in the state using funding assistance from local, state or federal sources. Only 11 other states had more.

“People are realizing they can save some money, or maybe even make a little money with wind,” said Dan Turner, a program manager for Windustry, a Twin Cities-based wind power advocacy group that has consulted with individuals and governments across the country. “Another motivation for a lot of people is that it’s environmentally very sound.”

Properly sited in an area with high enough winds, a homeowner could potentially cut a household electric bill by as much as half, he said.

Alissa Harrington, the firm’s analyst for small wind projects, said that interest “is happening all across the country — it’s not unique to Minnesota.”

Local government officials grappling with the issue for the first time have several model ordinances groups have developed to guide them to regulate the size and siting of the backyard machines, she said.

While large scale wind farms, such as one residents are opposing in Goodhue County attract the most attention, situations like Nygard’s aren’t unheard of. In rural Washington County, neighbors of a farmer are fighting his plan to erect a residential-scale turbine on his property.

Entwined in his fight with City Hall, Nygard believes, are neighbors’ objections to the still-dormant wind turbine.

The battle began last fall when the city informed him that a turbine wasn’t allowed under the city code.

He ignored that opinion and erected it anyway, only to be served with a suit in March that it violates the city’s rules on residential property lines and structural setbacks.

Nygard, who was a city council member from 2000 until 2003, countersued. A trial is scheduled for next spring.

“This is nuts — I’m not knocking the house down, not trying to build a wind farm,” he said.

Harrington warned anyone considering erecting a home turbine, “It’s important to get neighbors on board because there’s a great deal of confusion about these machines and the big ones.”

According to Ross, the consultant, “Without a doubt, it’s a growing market, with the number of installations increasing, so you’re going to see more of this.”