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Resistance, economy dog wind farms

FORT WAYNE – Alternative energy administrator Steve Stroup says he wasn’t blowing smoke when he spoke of erecting wind farms in northeast Indiana more than a year ago.

But a $250 million project to install up to 75 wind turbines in LaGrange County has a ways to go before Pioneer Wind Energy of Fort Wayne realizes its dreams.

For all of the talk about alternative energy, many remain cautious about embracing the commercial technology. The result is that projects are not moving as quickly as some developers would like.

“There’s a lot to it, and it’s not as simple as just throwing up a turbine,” said Stroup, managing director of Pioneer Wind, which hopes to begin construction of turbines late next year. At present, staffers must collect wind data, conduct environmental impact studies, complete infrastructure planning and other pre-construction logistics.

“These projects take time,” Stroup said.

Wind farms involve grouping together several turbines to make the most efficient use of the wind. The turbines’ propellers produce energy by powering generators that create electricity. Unlike coal-produced electricity, there is no toxic emission, which makes the process environmentally friendly.

Since 2006, at least seven companies have attempted to establish wind farms in northern Indiana and surrounding areas, according to various county records.

The most recent proposal is in Whitley County by St. Louis-based Wind Capital Group. It has riled some residents even though planners are only conducting initial research. Company executives aren’t ready to discuss details about possible investment.

Stanley Crum is an outspoken member of Whitley County Concerned Citizens. The grassroots group wants the government to closely monitor and place regulations on wind turbine developments.

“We are not anti-alternative energy,” he said. “All we’re saying is that these wind farms need to be governed properly in order to preserve agriculture and the health and safety of people.”

Critics warn that the continuous low-frequency sounds wind farms emit have been linked to medical problems such as headaches, blurred vision and irritability.

Because of wildlife concerns, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has indefinitely stopped issuing wind turbine permits on public land in California. The agency is studying the risk to golden eagles.

John Doster, project director of Wind Capital, understands such issues but said many health concerns are unwarranted.

“There is a lot misinformation about wind farms on the Internet,” Doster said. “Fear of change is what drives a lot of it, but once people see the advantages as far as job growth, new investment and how it supports the farmers with income from their land,” they start to come around.

That certainly is the case in northwestern Indiana’s Benton County, which is poised to become home to some of the largest wind-power facilities in the world.

A joint effort between BP Alternative Energy and Dominion Resources came on the scene in late 2008. They hope to generate enough electricity for more than 200,000 average American homes, according to estimates.

Benton’s nearly 9,000 residents’ share land with more than 500 wind turbines, compliments of BP and other companies, including California firms enXco Inc. and Orion Energy, that are investing billions of dollars.

The projects typify the kind of “green” developments investors like to tout. Benton expects wind farms to eventually double in number as construction continues this spring, while creating jobs for machinists, iron and steel workers, construction managers and equipment operators.

To date, about 100 full-time jobs have been created, paying $40,000 to $50,000 a year, said Kelly Kepner, director for Benton County Economic Development.

Even so, she also said misperceptions about alternative energy are a hurdle.

“You’re going to have certain people resistant,” Kepner said. “The reason, I think, is that they’re misinformed about (wind farms). Once they learn about them more, their attitudes change.”

In northwestern Ohio, wind turbines in Paulding and Van Wert counties will change the landscape.

In 2008, Horizon Wind Energy of Houston hoped to invest up to $1 billion to build 400 farms in Paulding and Van Wert counties. While leaders of the endeavor try to reach for that goal, Iberdrola Renewables of Portland, Ore., which came on the scene three years ago, has construction under way to put up more than 100 wind turbines, representing millions of dollars.

The Great Recession, however, certainly has had a hand in how fast some ventures can take root, observers suspect.

“It is an industry that is demand driven, so it can be up and down,” Stroup said. “At the beginning of the Obama administration, everybody was excited about renewable energy, but that’s died down.”

“It will come back because wind energy is by far the most advanced renewable technology available.”

Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, agrees.

He said most states have some type of renewable energy standard, requiring increased production from alternative sources. Indiana is not among them, and that dubious distinction hinders progress, Kharbanda said.

He said the fledging industry “needs to build a political constituency around wind turbines.” Indiana has the pieces in place to become an alternative energy powerhouse, he said.

“The potential of the industry is better in Indiana than many other states,” Kharbanda said. “We do need heavy promotion to get the word out.”

There are struggling auto suppliers that could retrofit their plants to make wind turbine components and, according to a study used by the Hoosier Environmental Council, the per capita potential for job growth is second only to Wisconsin.

So why is the industry slow to pick up steam? “We need strong lobbyists,” Kharbanda said.