Want to build a 200-megawatt solar energy power plant?
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 slide 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.
A resident presented a PowerPoint presentation saying the law requires the county to ensure a power plant has “zero” impact 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.
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 is blowing and release it into the grid when the wind dies down. The project will generate 400 construction jobs and 25 operator jobs and more than $1.6 million in local property taxes per year.
Moreover, the land now belongs to the Aztec Cattle Company — which will continue to graze cattle in and around the windmills.
The combined output of the wind farm and the near-by solar power plant will nearly replace the 1GW output of the Cholla coal-fired power plant, which has already closed two of its four units. One study estimated that emissions from coal-fired plants in Europe cause at least 15,000 to 19,000 deaths annually.
Supervisor Daryl Seymore commented, “Overwhelmingly, people want to shut down the coal plants. 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.”
The internet does bristle with studies on the windmills.
One study on PMC PubMed Central concluded that the low-frequency sound produced by the giant spinning windmills can affect heart rate and blood pressure — with a possible impact on headaches and sleep-related problems.
However, in the studies that found some effect, the turbines were closer to the homes than in Navajo County. They were also much smaller windmills. The 820-foot-tall windmills tower to 77 stories — twice as high as the tallest building in the state.
Some studies estimate that windmills kill somewhere between 140,000 and 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.
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 is not shining. It will generate 350 to 400 construction jobs — but only about three full-time jobs once it’s up and running.
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. Nuclear power generates 9 grams per kilowatt.