How Permitting, Zoning Issues Differ for Distributed Wind

April 20, 2015

Audio with Karin Wadsack, Northern Arizona University College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences Project Director (MP3 2.8 MB). Download Windows Media Player. Time: 00:03:01.

Distributed wind is the use of wind turbines primarily used for onsite or local community electricity generation. For example, that can be a wind turbine at someone's home or a community turbine on school property. Distributed wind turbines are typically smaller than the utility-scale turbines that make up wind farms, according to Karin Wadsack, Northern Arizona University College of Engineering, Forestry and Natural Sciences Project Director. She explains some of the permitting and zoning issues relevant to distributed wind.

"The primary permitting and zoning issues that distributed wind deals with would include safety. That could include a fall zone for the turbine. So typically you'll see that a turbine is required to be set back inside of a property so that if it were to fall over, it would not cross the property line into someone else's property or into a right-of-way. Another item could be lighting if the tower is taller than 200 feet. So, if it were required by the Federal Aviation Administration, the turbine would be required to be lit, but typically, turbines that are lower than 200 feet are not lit, and that's just the norm."

There are a number of issues relevant for larger wind farms that aren't relevant for distributed wind, according to Wadsack.

"Distributed wind turbines typically don't cause wildlife issues. Usually they're being installed in a place that's already got other uses on it and it's a small wind turbine, so it's not something that would necessarily impact flight patterns or other wildlife corridors. Distributed wind applications also typically don't require lighting and things like cultural surveys or grading permits and things that large-scale wind turbines do. Because distributed wind turbines are typically generating electricity that's used onsite or very close by, the permitting and zoning concerns are frequently quite a bit less than the concerns that are relevant for something like a wind farm."

For decision makers unfamiliar with the wind industry, Wadsack says it can be challenging to distinguish between a small and large wind turbine and navigate the different issues relevant for each scale.

In some communities, there is no zoning ordinance for wind turbines, so Wadsack says they could fall under another ordinance.

"They could fall under a community's regular conditional use permit mechanism or other ordinance for something like communication towers, in which case the person putting in a small wind turbine would be working through the process of getting a permit for a special use or a conditional use. That usually would be through the county planning and zoning committee or county commissioners or supervisors. If it's in the city limits, that would be through the city building department, planning and zoning commission, or city council."

Learn more about permitting and zoning for distributed wind.