(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
By Gerard Wynn
LONDON, Sept 4 (Reuters) - A U.S. study has found that wind farm developments do not lower house values, a concern often flagged in objections to planning applications, but bigger less easily measured concerns remain.
How, for instance, can you gauge the impact of placing a group of steel turbines in what locals often describe as familiar, treasured landscapes?
UK precedent shows landscape sways onshore wind planning decisions on a case by case basis. If you cannot measure that impact and people's attachment to wildlife and historical sites these things become random elements in planning decisions and thus potential pitfalls for developers.
But the comprehensive report, by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL, a government body), can add some rigour to local energy development decisions, by allaying property concerns among local communities.
The findings are also relevant to other energy projects where growth in residential areas may be greater than onshore wind, including electricity transmission pylons and shale gas.
The LBNL report aimed to add to the present understanding of impacts on house values by collecting more data, from 51,276 house sales, closer to wind turbines than previous studies.
The authors applied various models to correct for non-wind farm influences on values, including trends in the wider housing market and house location.
The context for the study was rapidly rising wind power deployment in the United States, which is expected to continue, including in more populated areas such as New York, New England, the Mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest.
They compared house values, as measured by sale price, before and after the announcement of a proposed nearby wind farm, and before and after construction.
"Regardless of model specification, we find no statistical evidence that home values near turbines were affected in the post-construction or post-announcement/pre-construction periods."
Possible explanations for the small/zero impact may include: a "fear of the unknown" anticipation which ebbs rather quickly; a minimum distance between wind turbines and homes; and self-selection of house buyers who accept wind turbines more readily.
The LBNL study did not review or analyse the actual role of house value impacts in local objections to wind farm developments.
Britain is a crowded country with rapidly growing wind power capacity and a formidable planning system, and so offers a useful case study to put the role of house price concerns in context among other possible objections.
British planning data show that more than a third of total onshore wind applications have been rejected to date, at 7.1 gigawatts refused compared with 13.6 GW approved. (See Chart 1)
In addition to direct refusals, another 4.3 GW of applications were withdrawn, possibly because of expected refusal, and a further 1.6 GW of applications were not formally submitted, possibly because of expected delays or rejection.
The total of refused/ withdrawn/ unsubmitted proposals, at 13 GW, almost equals total approvals, indicating a significant barrier to development.
Planning officials weigh applications according to impacts on the economy, landscape, the historic environment, wildlife and the living conditions of residents, as well as national policy on renewable energy and sustainable development.
One way to examine planning decisions and local objections is to focus on the largest of the UK's 3,104 formal and informal onshore wind planning applications.
The biggest was for a 652 megawatt (MW) wind farm on the Isle of Lewis in the far northwest of Scotland, a remote area with strong wind resources.
The planning application was refused in 2008 on the basis of its impact on a local bird reserve; it received some 11,022 individual representations (including 5,698 from the island), of which just 98 were in support.
In its planning refusal, the Scottish government summarised four categories of public objection to the project: turbine and construction noise; impact on landscape and visual amenity; adverse impact on tourism; and ecological impacts.
The local government found potential for both house price increases, as a result of demand from workers on the project, and decreases, for homes closer to turbines.
The second biggest proposed onshore wind project was a 371 MW wind farm in Shetland, another group of islands off the north coast of Scotland; the government approved the project after 2,772 public objections and 1,109 comments in support.
"The objections raised concerns on a number of subjects including habitat, wildlife, visual impact and infrastructure. Ministers are of the view that these issues will be appropriately addressed by way of mitigation and, where impacts remain, these are outweighed by the economic benefits and renewable energy generation which the Development will bring," said the planning approval statement, in April last year.
House prices were not a top concern.
The third biggest UK wind farm proposal was for a 350 MW project in southern Scotland.
A summary of the public enquiry found that there could be "unavoidable significant impacts on the visual amenity" for at least 162 properties, but the plan was still approved on the basis of benefits including meeting renewable energy targets.
Visual amenity is the enjoyment locals get from a particular view or experience of a landscape.
A recent planning briefing note for British lawmakers, "Planning for onshore wind farms", confirmed that landscape could equally be the basis for refusing an application, or be over-ruled on the basis of other benefits. (Editing by Keiron Henderson)
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Top Renewable Energy Sources
Renewable energy made up 9 percent of all energy consumed in 2011, according to the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>, and that number is <a href="http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/er/pdf/0383er(2013).pdf">predicted to grow throughout the next decade</a>. Here's a breakdown of the top sources of renewable energy in the country, from wind to water and everything in between. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Solar Power - 2 Percent
Solar power and photovoltaic cells make up the smallest percentage of U.S. renewable energy production, but its future looks fairly promising. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/03/warren-buffett-solar-power_n_2398816.html">invested $2.5 billion in Calif. solar company SunPower</a> earlier this year. Also, unlike other sources of renewables, energy can also be generated by small-scale solar installations (like on the rooftop of a home or business), and<a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=8570"> declining costs</a> have made solar much more affordable. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Geothermal - 2 Percent
Geothermal power captures naturally occurring heat from the earth to turn it into power. The renewable source is geographically dependent, <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=3970">but the Western half of the U.S.</a> has many promising locations for power plants, <a href="http://www.geysers.com/">like The Geysers in Calif.</a>, the largest geothermal power plant in the world. The U.S. is the largest producer of geothermal power on the planet, but growth hasn't kept up with wind or solar development in recent years. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Waste - 5 Percent
Believe it or not, burned garbage accounts for 5 percent of all renewable energy created in the U.S. each year. More than 29 million tons of municipal solid waste was burned in 2010 to create steam to spin turbines and generate power, <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=7990"> and there are more than 75</a> waste-to-energy plants in the country. Emissions regulations have been in place at waste incineration plants since the 1960s, but the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/ncer/publications/research_results_needs/combustionEmmissionsReport.pdf">EPA warned in a 2006 report that the toxins released</a> during the process could pose a serious environmental risk if not strictly enforced. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Wind - 13 Percent
The amount of wind power has grown for each of the past three years throughout the U.S. and accounted for the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=9931">largest growth in capacity</a> of any energy resource in the country last year. Wind turbines now supply more than <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/19/us-utilities-windpower-usa-idUSBRE89I0TX20121019">50,000 megawatts a year,</a> enough to power 13 million homes, according to Reuters. Federal tax credits, which were set to expire at the end of 2012, have made wind farms an attractive form of renewable energy. Congress <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/davelevitan/2013/01/02/wind-power-tax-credit-survives-fiscal-cliff-deal/">approved an extension of the credits</a> through the end of 2013. After production, wind turbines are net zero, meaning they require no energy and produce no emissions. The only problematic thing generated in some cases other than clean power has been <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/24/wind-power-noise-pollution-maine_n_866182.html">a whole lot of noise</a>. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Biofuel - 21 Percent
Biofuels, like ethanol, are created from organic matter like corn or soybeans. Gasoline in the U.S. contains 9 percent of the resource by federal mandate under the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/otaq/fuels/renewablefuels/index.htm">Renewable Fuel Standard program,</a> and more than <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/us-should-change-biofuel-_n_1764735.html">40 percent of the corn crop</a> last year was turned into biofuel. The resource is slightly more unstable than other renewables because it depends on the productivity of farms - <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/us-should-change-biofuel-_n_1764735.html">drought or other environmental problems</a> can significantly lower yields and increase prices. On average, <a href="http://www.afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/flexible_fuel_emissions.html">ethanol has 20 percent fewer emissions</a> than traditional gasoline but some types, like <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulosic_ethanol">cellulosic ethanol,</a> cut greenhouse gas emissions more than 85 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Wood - 22 Percent
Timber accounts for nearly a quarter of all renewable energy created in the country. <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2012/10/121022-wood-for-heating/">Rising energy costs </a>have led to an upswing in wood burning over the past decade, and nearly <a href="http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/steo/report/winterfuels.cfm">20 percent of New England homes </a>use wood for heating, according to a National Geographic report. Although it may be a cheaper alternative, wood burning stoves and fireplaces<a href="http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/energyefficiency.html"> release more emissions of fine particles </a> than other home heating methods, according to the EPA. Burning <a href="http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/bestburn.html">good wood in an efficient burner</a> lowers toxic emissions and lost energy. Oh, and always have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors handy. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Hydroelectric - 35 Percent
Almost all of the current hydroelectric power plants in the U.S. were <a href="http://www.eia.gov/energy_in_brief/article/hydropower.cfm">built before the mid-1970's</a>, but it's still the highest producing renewable energy source in the country. In 2011, 8 percent of all power created in the U.S. came from hydroelectric sources, but it's also one of the most geographically dependent sources of energy. The Pacific Northwest gets more than half of all power via hydroelectric due to prime geography. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
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Watch this TED talk on the missing link in the future of renewable energy.