Critics of wind turbines, which are the source of so much of the clean, renewable energy that America is hoping will save the planet, stood up to be counted in Wisconsin on Tuesday. Turbine champions hold that there’s no respectable reason to oppose them, that what Wisconsin is hearing is merely an expression of the selfish desire to have them put somewhere else. But the opponents’ argument isn’t “Not in my backyard.” It’s “Please, not so close to my house.” 

In this week’s issue of the Reader, cartoonist Lynda Barry, who’s a critic of the turbines, and I, an agnostic, examine the dispute over wind farms. Local opposition to wind turbines is so intense in Wisconsin that no new wind park has been approved since March of 2007. The sticking point is setbacks — that is, the distances that turbines are set back from the nearest houses. The wind industry says 1,000 feet is sufficient; local authorities have been demanding setbacks of 1,800 feet to a mile.

In an effort to end the stalemate, a bill was introduced in the legislature to do an end run around local authority by shifting much of the control over future projects to the state’s Public Service Commission. On Tuesday, a joint legislative committee on energy and utilities held a public hearing on this bill in Madison. Barry testified; so did about half the state.

Barry wrote me:

Testimony went from 11 AM until 8 PM without a break. There were a lot of utilities, wind developers, and lobbyists speaking. . . .  They were all wearing suits and stickers with a turbine and the word YES! After four hours of testimony they thinned out and were pretty much gone by 3 PM. The next five hours of testimony came from people living in wind farms, members of local government that had worked on ordinances with longer setbacks than 1,000 feet, people from communities like ours where ordinances have been adopted or are in the works. There was no testimony from anyone who is hosting turbines or has plans to host turbines. The only people speaking in favor of the bill were in the wind industry.

The saddest thing about all of it was that few of the legislators on the committee displayed much interest in the testimony. A lot of them kept leaving and didn’t look like they were listening at all. I know that’s politics as usual, but all I could think about were these people from rural areas who had to take the day off work to come testify at the capitol, who had never done such a thing in their lives and were petrified. It was interesting that wind farm residents even bothered to come down. They’ve already lost. The turbines are up. But they came anyway because they wanted the legislators to know what they were living with. 

On the other side, here’s the presentation by Michael Vickerman of Renew Wisconsin, a wind power advocate lobbying group supported in part by wind industry companies and Wisconsin utilities.

Here’s coverage from Thomas Content, a blogger for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. And here’s more coverage by Paul Snyder, a reporter Barry praises highly, though he writes for the Daily Reporter, a construction industry trade paper.

And here’s Barry’s Web site, Better Plan, Wisconsin, which has links to videos displaying the sights and sounds caused by turbines. If for some reason you want to watch (or simply listen to) the entire hearing, she’s got the links, and she’s posted the testimony of some of the people who told the joint committee that living near turbines has blighted their lives.

If you’ve read my article, with its description of Barry’s long, fruitless exchange of e-mail with the Wisconsin State Journal‘s editorial page editor, who’d made up his mind about wind turbines and showed no interest in reopening it, you may be wondering how the WSJ covered the hearing. I’ve been monitoring the Journal’s Web site, and so far as I can see, the paper hasn’t written a word.