Sandi Zirbel recalls when she could hardly leave her dairy farm without being stopped by a neighbor or reporter to talk about wind energy.
It was 1998 when former Gov. Tommy Thompson helped dedicate Wisconsin’s first two 197-foot wind turbines on the Zirbel farm in the town of Glenmore. Sandi and husband Mike Zirbel had lived through the 1970s energy crisis; they were eager to help demonstrate a clean new source of energy.
“We haven’t experienced any problems with them,” Sandi Zirbel said. “We can’t go on using the energy we’re using and not expect it to be renewable. I really think the people that aren’t in favor of this just aren’t aware of the energy issues out there.”
In an interview this week, the Zirbels said they are disappointed to see some controversy surrounding a proposal to add eight new turbines elsewhere in Glenmore. The Town Board on Monday unanimously approved a conditional-use permit to allow eight new 492-foot turbines on land owned by four families.
The wind-turbine approvals in rural Brown County are a sign of the times. Right now, there are 53 turbines in the state, but three much larger projects will be adding about 200 around Wisconsin in the next two years.
And Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration pushed a new requirement that 10 percent of state energy production be renewable by 2015.
After nine years, the Wisconsin Public Service Corp. wind turbines in the Zirbels’ fields are still getting mixed reviews, but some of the worst fears expressed at the time have not panned out, Sandi Zirbel said.
“If people want to object to the way they look, fine, but the other concerns we’ve heard – they just aren’t true.”
She said they’ve never found a dead bird near the towers; they rarely hear the turbines except for a faint noise outside the house on days with light wind; and they’ve suffered no headaches or ill health effects. What they thought was a stray voltage problem was solved two years ago when they installed a new well and water conditioner.
But other projects in the area have also generated complaints. Wisconsin Public Service Corp. of Green Bay and Madison Gas & Electric operate a combined 31 wind turbines in the Kewaunee County towns of Lincoln and Red River, and neighbors there have complained about noise.
Another company, Navitas Energy Inc., proposed a wind farm with 55 towers in southeastern Shawano County in 2003. A spokesperson in the company’s Minneapolis office said the project was dropped after the Shawano County Board put a one-year halt on any projects to study the effects.
Shadows and noise
The Zirbels’ experience hasn’t been enough to soothe fears. People who oppose the turbines point out the Zirbels are making money from their lease with WPS.
“I’m not against the wind towers, but my son’s property is next to where the new ones will go. We are concerned about the effect on property values. We do worry about noise, birds, health and safety,” said Pat Schaetz of Glenmore. “If you were getting paid to have towers on your land, you would say good things too.”
Sandi Zirbel declined to say how much she and her husband receive from the WPS lease, but she said it was not a significant percentage of the farm’s income.
One neighbor of the Zirbels, Jim Sausen, has remained opposed to the wind turbine since the beginning. He said in a recent public meeting the town landscape was getting increasingly crowded with radio towers and wind turbines.
“When there’s a very slight breeze, I hear a very annoying whine from the turbines,” Sausen said. “The turbines only generate power under certain conditions, but they keep them running constantly. If I have the windows open, I can hear them occasionally. I’m downwind.”
Sausen said the Zirbels’ towers cast shadows on his house at certain times of the year, and he worries about the impact of the towers on his property values.
Zirbel, however, said she firmly believes many people come to see the towers and enjoy watching them spin.
According to current state law, the only grounds a municipality can use to fight a wind turbine project are health and safety.
The three big pending projects in Wisconsin are proposed by WE Energies, Wisconsin Public Power, and Alliant Energy. Wisconsin Public Service, based in Green Bay, hasn’t proposed a new wind facility since its second project, the 14-tower town of Lincoln facility in Kewaunee County.
Rob Benninghoff, director of renewable and special projects for WPS, said wind power definitely supplements coal-fired power plants using a clean, renewable resource. But he added that wind power alone is not a reliable power source because it isn’t constant. In other words, no wind, no power. Using only wind or solar power requires expensive batteries besides.
“Wind requires another resource with capacity (like gas or coal) to provide energy when the unit is inoperable due to lack of available wind,” Benninghoff said. “As the demand for renewables increases, I feel obligated to educate people on the apples-to-apples issues of economics of the technologies.”
The new proposal for turbines is coming from Emerging Energies/Shirley Wind LLC of Hubertus. Four landowners will put the towers on their property.
But the turbines will be bigger – 2Â½ times taller – than the Zirbels’, which was basically a pilot project for the state. The new turbines also will generate twice as much power.
“The Zirbels’ towers are the oldest in the state,” said Michael Vickerman, executive director of the pro-wind group Renew Wisconsin. “It was a novelty at the time. They were dedicated on Earth Day 1998. It was a really big deal.”
The rated electrical output of the turbines on the Zirbel property is 600,000 kilowatts. The new Forward Wind project envisions turbines with 1,500,000 kilowatts or 1.5 megawatts. According to Emerging Energies, the turbines going up in Glenmore will have a capacity of 2.75 megawatts.
“Wind is free. It seems a shame to let it blow through without using it,” Mike Zirbel said. “We can make energy from corn, but that might drive up food prices eventually.”
By Lee Reinsch
31 March 2007
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