ST. CLOUD, Wis. – Elizabeth Ebertz loves her garden, but the 67-year-old grandmother doesn’t work in it much anymore.
The small vegetable patch, which has produced onions, carrots and tomatoes for many family dinners, sits behind her home, in a little valley, about a half-mile from a dozen 400-foot-tall wind turbines.
The structures are part of the Blue Sky Green Field Wind Energy Center in northeastern Fond du Lac County, one of the state’s largest wind farms, capable of producing energy for about 36,000 homes.
Unfortunately, said Ebertz, the turbines also produce enough noise to chase her from the garden – and most nights, disturb her sleep.
“Sometimes it sounds like a racetrack, or a plane landing,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how loud it gets.”
The state Public Service Commission is considering a new set of wind farm regulations that could free up the industry and promote growth in Wisconsin, a state that has lagged behind the rest of the Midwest in using wind as an alternative energy source.
The PSC, which regulates state utilities, is expected to send the proposal to the Legislature by the end of the month.
If passed, the measure could go a long way in helping Wisconsin reach its goal of generating 10 percent of its energy with renewable sources by 2015. Renewable sources account for 5 percent of the state’s energy now.
The measure could also end what has been years of localized fights – often spurred by well-funded anti-wind organizations – that have effectively killed at least 10 proposed wind farms in the past eight years, and scared off several others.
But for people like Ebertz, the new rules mean more people will have to deal with wind turbines and the problems that come with them.
“I wish those things were never built here,” Ebertz said. “They’re just too close to people. I wish they were gone.”
State far behind neighbors
Wisconsin spends about $1.5 billion on imported energy every year and ranks 16th in the country in available wind.
According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), Wisconsin has the capacity to produce up to 449 megawatts of energy from its current wind farms – enough to power about 110,000 homes.
Yet the state trails other Midwestern states in wind energy production. Minnesota wind farms produce 1,797 megawatts, Illinois produces 1,848 and Iowa generates 3,670. “It’s not even close,” said Barnaby Dinges, an AWEA member and lobbyist from Illinois. “Wisconsin is danger of falling out of the wind game altogether. It’s getting a reputation as inhospitable to the wind industry.”
Dinges has lobbied for six wind farms in the past five years, three of them in Wisconsin. He said the state has a number of well-organized anti-wind groups that have endangered its 10 percent goal.
“This isn’t like any grass-roots opposition we have seen elsewhere,” he said. “These aren’t just concerned citizens going to meetings. These are mass mailings, billboards, full-page ads. It’s more professional and it costs a lot of money.”
Jenny Heinzen – a professor of wind energy technology at Lakeshore Technical College, which has campuses in Manitowoc, Cleveland and Sheboygan, and a member of the state’s Wind Siting Council – said she has been amazed with the opposition.
“I have my suspicions that they are getting help from some groups from outside the state, but that has never been confirmed,” she said, referencing persistent rumors of coal and natural gas companies helping to kill wind projects here.
There are a lot of people who live near wind farms and never report problems. Still, the state is home to several anti-wind groups, including the Brown County Citizens for Responsible Wind Energy, the WINDCOWS, the Calumet County Citizens for Responsible Energy, Healthy Wind Wisconsin and the Coalition for Environmental Stewardship.
These groups have some powerful supporters, including several prominent lawyers, lobbyist and former state Sen. Bob Welch and Carl Kuehne, former CEO of American Foods Group.
But officials with the anti-wind groups say most of their members are simply residents who do not like the thought of living near a wind farm.
“We heard that criticism before – that we are a front group for oil and gas companies – but it’s just not true,” said Lynn Korinek, a member of WINDCOWS. “We are a group of about 200 members who hold rummage sales to fund our fight. There are no special interests behind us, believe me.”
Neighbors claim health problems
Most of the state’s anti-wind groups say they have nothing against wind energy, they simply disagree with how it is implemented in the state.
Still, their websites show members either fear the possible side effects of wind energy, or want others to fear them. The concerns include diminished property values, occasional noise pollution, moving shadows cast by the giant windmills along with loss of sleep from vibrations, increased menstrual cycles, high blood pressure, headaches and irritability.
Recently, the state Division of Public Health looked into the issue, studying more than 150 medical reports, interviewing dozens of residents and municipalities and consulting the universities of Wisconsin, Maine and Minnesota, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Their conclusion was that scientific evidence does not support the claim of wind turbine syndrome, an umbrella term for the health problems some have attributed to wind farms. The letter also points out that many of the symptoms associated with the condition – headaches, irritability, loss of sleep – are fairly common and can be attributed to other factors.
“They can explain it anyway they want, but something is different around here and it has been ever since they put those turbines up,” said Allen Hass, a 56-year-old farmer who owns about 600 acres in Malone, northeast of Fond du Lac.
Hass has three Blue Sky Green Field turbines on his property. He said We Energies, which owns the wind farm, pays him about $12,000 a year for the space.
Hass said the money does not make up for his health problems, including headaches and loss of memory.
“I wish I never made that deal,” he said.
Brian Manthey, We Energies spokesman, said the company is aware of Hass’s complaints, but that the scientific evidence does not support them. He said the company works hard to make its neighbors happy.
“You never get 100 percent support for anything, but you will find that a lot of people are happy with the farm,” he said.
New rules trump local ones
The new rules, written by the Wind Siting Council, streamline the state approval process so potential developers know exactly what they face when considering a project in Wisconsin.
Probably the most important aspect of the new regulations deals with state permitting. In the past, the state only had direct authority over wind farms generating more than 100 megawatts.
Under the new rules, the state would deal with all wind farms. Local municipalities would still be involved but would not be allowed to establish regulations stricter than the state’s.
Supporters figure this will open the door for the rapid growth of wind energy in the state by bypassing many of the local fights that have created such a logjam. Wisconsin is home to nine wind farms, with another two under construction, and three in the planning stages.