Whatcom County used to restrict local wind power. That just changed

As small wind energy systems are becoming increasingly affordable and practical to install, Whatcom County Council's update to development code is timely.

August 7, 2023

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On July 25th, the Whatcom County Council voted unanimously to update the county development code and allow for local wind power facilities. As Washington State’s 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act requires that electric utilities transition to a net-zero-carbon power supply by 2030, utilities are planning more large-scale wind projects that will create thousands of jobs.

We applaud the County Council, Planning Commission and Climate Impact Advisory Committee for taking important steps forward in support of our shared goals to broadly expand clean energy infrastructure and build resiliency locally in the face of climate change.

Since the Whatcom County Code governing wind energy development was first passed in 2009, costs and prices of wind power generation have been cut in half, while installed capacity quadrupled in the United States. Wind energy has become the fastest growing, lowest-cost source for new power production in the U.S. and continues to rise, together with solar providing more jobs in the electricity sector than coal, oil and gas combined. Wind now makes up over 10% of U.S. power generation and climbing, providing around 8% of electricity supply in Washington State, which could double by 2030.

Wind turbines are safe, zero-emission, reliable machines. But like all development, they still have environmental impacts and should be responsibly regulated and sited appropriately. Utility-scale projects typically undergo robust review by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Thankfully, overlapping environmental protections are already in place through the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) and federal laws like the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA).

Whatcom County wind power: Why it matters

Nonetheless, Whatcom County’s code governing wind power development was unnecessarily restrictive, making it burdensome and difficult to install even small household scale wind systems anywhere outside the Cherry Point Industrial Zone. The ordinance, proposed by the county’s Climate Impact Advisory Committee, adjusts limitations to be consistent with current standards in many other jurisdictions.

Now enacted, the revised code allows Small Wind Energy Systems (with generating capacities no more than 100 kilowatts and a hub height below 200 feet), as a permitted use throughout Whatcom County. This makes it easier for rural property owners to install small wind energy systems large enough to meet their on-site residential or commercial needs. It’s the perfect time to allow more local wind power, as small wind energy systems are becoming increasingly affordable and practical to install alongside solar panels, battery storage, and other forms of “distributed energy resources” that are integral to the challenge of meeting all our energy needs from 100% renewable sources.

We’re looking forward to continuing the work of improving local development rules for emerging energy technologies, to strike the right balance in rules that enable us to build resiliency with locally-controlled energy systems in ways that protect our environment and enhance quality of life in our communities.