Zoning Issues for Wind Farms

Note: The rules and law may have changed since this article was first published. It is provided for archival purposes but you should consult with your lawyer for the current state of the law

Saskatchewan has exceptional renewable resources, including wind. Proponents have been busily working on developing wind power, and there are numerous wind farm projects across the province. This has been delayed, however, while developers wait for SaskPower to complete their long-anticipated wind power deployment strategy. This strategy should address the timing, ownership and procurement process for new wind power projects.

Building wind farms benefits many parties: farmers who receive lease payments, municipalities who obtain taxes, entrepreneurs who make profits, and the public at large through low-emission energy. The benefits depend on effective regulatory processes at the municipal level. Without appropriate municipal permitting processes, approvals processes and zoning bylaws, development will be hindered.

Municipalities do not necessarily need to make extensive amendments or draft a multitude of new bylaws. For example, the 11 MW Cypress wind farm in the R.M. of Carmichael and the 11.2 MW SunBridge wind farm in the R.M. of Webb required only minor amendments to zoning bylaws. The definition of “Tower” was revised to include any structure used for the transmission of electrical energy and “Wind Farming” was added to the permitted discretionary uses.

However, future wind farms in Saskatchewan will inevitably be larger than the Cypress and SunBridge projects. With larger wind farms comes closer contact with human activity and the important issue of setbacks arises. Setbacks are the distance between towers and dwellings, property lines, roads and other human developments and are usually addressed in municipal bylaws.

There are four main goals municipalities should aim to meet when amending or drafting bylaws to deal with setbacks:

• protect public safety in the event of ice shedding or turbine failure;
• maintain acceptable sound levels for municipal residents;
• minimize impact on radio, radar and telecommunications; and
• minimize impact on sensitive environments.

To ensure these four goals are met, municipalities can look to other jurisdictions and adopt their best practices. For instance:

1. A setback distance of at least the blade length plus 10 meters from public roads, non-participating property lines and other developments is recommended to ensure public safety from ice shedding or turbine failure due to lightning strike or manufacturer’s defect. The average blade length on a standard turbine is 40 meters in length. The longest blades currently in production are 54.6 meters on the new Vestas V112-3.0, which is capable of producing a groundbreaking 3 megawatts of power from a single turbine.

2. Sound from turbines is a function of many factors such as turbine model, topography and prevailing wind conditions. It can therefore vary greatly from one site to another. As a result, setbacks between towers and dwellings should be determined on the basis of the actual sound levels at the receptor rather than on a set distance. The Canadian Wind Energy Association recommends a sliding scale for acceptable sound starting at 40 dBa when the wind is at a speed of 4 metres/second, rising to 53 dBa at a wind speed of 11 m/s (11 m/s is just under 40 km/hr). For comparison, 40 dBa is roughly equivalent to the sound level in an average living room; the average office is about 50 dBa, and a loud conversation is 60 dBa.

3. Setbacks from radio, radar and telecommunication systems involve complex, highly technical studies and will vary significantly. Municipal planners may want to require developers to examine a “consultation area” of 80 km surrounding the proposed wind farm. The local authority can then ensure appropriate and reasonable setbacks are established based on the systems present in the consultation area (if any).

4. Environmental impacts are largely site-specific and addressed through the provincial and federal Environmental Assessment processes. In this case, the setback will usually be defined through a tailored study as part of the environmental screening procedure.

Once SaskPower completes their wind power deployment strategy, it is anticipated that development will proceed quickly. Those municipalities with appropriate bylaws in place to deal with setbacks will be ready to capitalize on this opportunity. By acting now, municipalities can also improve consultation with stakeholders and iron out potential issues early in the process.