International Municipal Lawyers Association - Local Government Blog

Wind’s Winning Ways

January 27, 2009
1 Comment

Posted by: Dwight Merriam, Partner, Robinson & Cole, LLP

With increasing concerns about global climate change, carbon footprints, sustainability and the price of oil, everyone seems to be looking for alternatives to produce electricity.  Surprisingly, it is believed that there are only 4,000 residential small wind turbines in the country, so there remains the potential for rapid growth.[1] Wind power is the best alternative in terms of the lowest cost per kilowatt hour among the technologies that are practical and reasonably available.[2]

Electric generators come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes from a few hundred watts such as might be used to provide additional power on a small boat or to run a water pump in a distant farm field, to a 50 kW or larger unit where the basic enclosure for the wind turbine is the size of a city bus.

While much has been written on planning for regulating large wind farm systems, there is a surprising lack of information about what local governments can and should do about the smallest of systems, the backyard wind turbine systems. How do we plan for them?  How should they be regulated? What should local officials be doing to assist homeowners in making decisions about the installation of residential wind turbines?

I have an article on the regulation of small “backyard” wind turbines forthcoming in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law in which I attempt to answer these questions, at least in part.  Professor Ronald H. Rosenberg made a great presentation on the subject of wind power generally at IMLA’s Nashville meeting in October 2007.  His comprehensive article is “Diversifying America’s Energy Future: The Future of Renewable Wind Power,” Virginia Environmental Law Journal, Vol. 26, p. 505 (2008) and is available at  It’s the place you want to start it if you need to get up to speed quickly.

One of the best places to go to keep up with latest developments is National Wind Watch, Inc., which is — in its own words — “a nonprofit corporation that promotes knowledge and raises awareness of the negative environmental and social impacts of industrial wind energy development.”I don’t find the news they report all that negative and I have not found a better source for local developments in planning and regulation.  Information, analysis, and other materials are available on its website, You can sign up for its news feed at Their channel on YouTube is

This last week the site reported on a zoning amendment initiative which may make good sense (especially since I suggest it in my upcoming article…) – eliminate most regulations for smaller systems under a certain capacity and height.

The hot issue right now is the Cape Wind project off of Cape Cod, opposed by Senator Kennedy and supported by Massachusetts Governor Patrick – both close to President Obama, who wants to promote sustainable, renewable power.  For the latest news on the project, go to this recent Associated Press report.   The final environmental impact statement supporting the project has just been issued.

[1]Kristin Dispenza, “Cities Look into Changing Zoning Laws to Accommodate Wind Power Generators” Energy, Energy Production (June 24, 2008 ) available at  An overview of the issues is found in Michael Donohue, “Siting of Wind Power Developments,” Zoning and Planning Law Report, Westlaw 28 NO. 4 ZPLR 1 (April 2005).


For a comprehensive analysis of the trade-offs between continuing to use fossil fuels to generate electricity and the aesthetics of wind turbines, see Avi Brisman, “The Aesthetics of Wind Energy Systems,”  New York University Environmental Law Journal, 13 NYU Envtl. L.J. 1 (2005). 



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This blog is made possible by the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA), but may include guest bloggers (who are attorneys with experience in local government matters) who might or might not work for IMLA. Their views (and those expressed on this site) do not necessarily express the views of IMLA.