When Michael Brooks approached Highland city officials about putting a wind turbine in his backyard, he was met with blank stares.
There was no city ordinance in place to regulate the mechanical windmill, one of the greenest ways to produce electricity.
It took seven months of back and forth between the Highland Planning Commission and City Council for approval on a 45-foot tower that's shorter than neighborhood telephone poles.
"There's been a lot of roadblocks and hoops to jump through," Brooks said. "I'm not a major green kind of guy, but there is a side benefit of reducing carbon fuels by reducing my electricity."
As more homeowners find the appeal of backyard wind turbines to cut back on expenses and their carbon footprint, municipalities are faced with the challenge of approving such structures. Because there are no state regulations in place for residential turbines, projects often are put on hold for months while a city writes an ordinance and holds lengthy public hearings.
"It's an ongoing battle," said Steve Painter, owner of West Mountain Wind and Solar. "Most of the time, it's all going to cities and counties to allow them. That's been the biggest headache."
Painter began selling turbines three years ago after putting 14 on his street with neighbors in Payson. They originally wanted 21, though resident complaints dropped that number by seven.
"A lot of it is naivete. People don't understand them," said Painter, who installs turbines in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Oregon. "People either love them or despise them. It's strange."
The same complaints pop up in city halls and council chambers: They're too noisy, too ugly, don't work, devalue property or will tip over.
"Someone's roof is going to come and take my windmill off long before my windmill takes someone's roof off," said Clyde Shepherd, an Alpine homeowner who was the first resident in northern Utah County to install a turbine.
The turbines can withstand winds up to 140 mph (the average roof takes 90 mph). And research shows wind turbines actually increase property values.
An average windmill costs $12,000 to $13,000, but state and federal tax credits can refund 50 percent of that price tag.
And while homeowners don't see an immediate payback, over time they'll stop getting a power bill.
That's because a turbine acts as a generator that runs on wind. It's tied to the electric meter, and when the turbine is generating more electricity than the home is using, the meter runs backward, putting that extra power back on the grid and credit into the homeowner's account.
Shepherd saw his electricity bill cut by an average of 42 percent in the first five months of use. He's since installed a second turbine and his bill has been cut by 90 percent.
"Some (cities) are really supportive and excited about it, but others don't care if they have 10,000 flagpoles the same height of our windmills," Shepherd said. "We wanted to get where we were supporting ourselves power-wise and we don't have a grid supplying us."
Areas of the state that would succeed with a wind turbine vary. Living at a canyon mouth provides great wind flow, but in areas with a lot of trees, the wind can be obstructed.
Counties such as Wasatch and Beaver have ordinances on turbines, as do some cities — including Brigham City, Genola, Lehi, Sandy and Spanish Fork.
The Cottonwood Heights City Council, though, recently decided not to pursue an ordinance.
"Well, we're not opposed to wind turbines," said Michael Black, Cottonwood Heights' planning director, noting that the City Council was concerned about aesthetics. "But as far as putting it as a priority for the city for staff and resources, we didn't think it was a priority."
Black said he sees turbines as another "hot-button suburban issue that comes and goes," like the recent influx of backyard chicken coops. He said the city would create an ordinance if they have an application.
It's a similar story in Draper, where it's deemed an "ongoing discussion," but turbines currently are not allowed.
"This is no longer Birkenstock-wearing hippies who want to do this. People want to do this for energy security over the long-term," said Sara Baldwin, senior policy and regulatory associate with Utah Clean Energy.
"One of the key messages that we like to impart with cities and towns and counties is looking at wind structures not as this foreign structure coming out of nowhere, this alien life form, but looking at it as structures we live with everyday — light poles, flag poles, telephone wires, cell phone towers," Baldwin said.
Utah's municipalities have a long way to go to shift that paradigm, she added. Currently, through the state energy program, a Utah Wind Working Group is creating a model wind turbine ordinance for municipalities to use as a template. It should be finalized by November.
Although Brooks originally researched turbines for emergency preparedness, the California native remembers the rolling blackouts of the electricity crisis in the state nearly a decade ago.
"I figure the more people we can get to reduce the demand on the grid, the less strain on the load," he said. "We're kind of on the cutting edge right now. People are a little reluctant because they're not sure what to expect. But as more cities draft ordinances, I think it's becoming more commonplace."
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