On Monday evening the Logan County Zoning Board of Appeals hosted the first public hearing on a proposed wind energy conversion system.
The Sugar Creek One wind farm would have 116 electrical energy generation machines, producing 1.6 megawatts each, spread out over 16,000 acres located west of Lincoln.
Doug Thompson acted as spokesman for the appeals board, with acting members Dean Toohey, Rick Sheley and Judi Graff present. One other member, Wilbur Paulus, owns land in the territory and excused himself from the proceedings.
Thompson announced that the hearing was to look at property concerns and support for a special zoning district conditional use of land that the project would require.
He set a few ground rules to enable a civil, impartial and orderly hearing, asking that all comments be addressed to the board and questions be kept to the topic.
He also asked that comments be kept to a five-minute limit on topics that have already been discussed, but that longer would be allowed if it were a new topic. Attorneys would be allowed 30-minute increments.
Representatives of Sugar Creek began by presenting core information on why the area was chosen, how locations for turbines were determined and how the electricity would be transported.
Then several experts were asked to summarize their findings and opinions on both required and optional studies that were performed.
The project is owned by three companies: American Wind Energy Management of Springfield, which has brought their familiarity with the locale and expertise in planning; Oak Creek, a California-based company that specializes in wind farm construction; and The Wind Co. out of Austria, which is a supporting business.
Project manager Stan Komperda began by saying that the location is good because of the nearby electrical grid access and good wind.
The county ordinance calls for turbines to be set back 1.1 times their height in feet from any primary structure. The company optionally chose significantly larger setback distances of 1,500 feet, with most at 1,750 feet.
Side agreements with local entities include repairing any damaged field drainage tiles and roads, as well as coordination, cooperation, special training and planning with local fire, weather and emergency experts.
There would be $9,500 per turbine escrowed, plus lots of copper for scrap metal in the project to cover decommission costs.
Studies and compliance with federal agencies
Equipment has been spaced to meet requirements of the Federal Communications Commission in regard to noise pollution.
The field would be lit in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration requirements. The 73 turbines around the perimeter would be lighted, and scattered inner turbines with quarter-mile minimum distances would also be lit.
Studies were started three years ago looking at natural resources that might be threatened or the presence of endangered species in the project footprint.
The planners have worked with the Illinois Environmental Agency to avoid storm water pollution, with a primary emphasis to keep soil from being washed away during the construction phase.
Approval was also gained for construction within a flood plain. That plan includes care not to obstruct floodwater from flowing in or out of flood-prone areas.
The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency was even consulted. While there is one home affected that is on the National Register of Historic Places, it is hoped that the structure may become the central home office for the operation, Komperda said.
One of the bigger challenges to mitigate has been anticipated interference with the National Weather Service’s Doppler radar. At eight miles out from the radar, the 0.5, 0.9 and 1.6 degree angles would be most affected. The lowest angle picks up ground clutter. The 0.9 degree angle is most important to incoming weather.
The mitigation with the NWS is a natural fit to the best interests of the wind producers as well. Komperda said, “We’re also concerned for the weather. We don’t want to be operating our machines in 45-50 mph wind.”
The blades are flexible and can tolerate 130 mph winds.
He added that because weather forecasting has improved to the degree of accuracy and expectancy that it is today, the NWS determined that there would be only five to 15 hours per year during actual severe weather events that turbine blades would need to be stopped to get accurate readings from radar.
Dan Fulscher, Logan County Emergency Management Agency director, was present to discuss weather and safety concerns. He confirmed with Komperda that there would be advance training and planning as well as in-time communications during severe weather outbreaks. The crew working the turbines would all become trained weather spotters and would also be prepared to shut down the turbines, which would already be slowed or stopped due to the weather conditions.
Input from experts
Experts in noise pollution, environmental concerns of flooding and soil erosion, natural habitat, protecting common and endangered species, and property values presented their information and participated in questions and answers.
–Dr. Paul Schomer presented noise data. An expert in environmental noise and acoustics since 1965, a graduate of Berkley and the University of Illinois, Schomer has worked with Army Corps of Engineers. He helped draft the Illinois Pollution Control Board rules and regulations in 1968.
He said that the Illinois rules are a bit more complicated than in some other states in dividing night and day allowances, adding in land conditions and octave levels. There are also a number of use divisions, such as commercial or agricultural. Wind turbines have the most stringent requirements compared with other sources.
Using various charts and accumulated noise between turbines over distances, the differences between the standards and predicted noise levels all fall below international standards and below the Illinois code limit, except for two locations. The two locations where the noise level is slightly out of compliance are actually uninhabitable
If people are bothered by the sound, they do have recourse. A complaint can be filed with the pollution control board, and the process does not require an attorney.
–Dr. Thomas, an ecologist involved in a lot of projects around the country, has also been involved with the governor’s office in looking at the impact of wind farms in Illinois.
He’s overseen studies on birds, various indigenous species, bats and even mussels, and has watched for any red flags that should be looked at.
He said a bird study is in its third year under Fish and Wildlife Service supervision. Both common and migrant birds that might come through the area have been observed.
During this year’s season peak he saw 91 species, with most going up to Canada to breed. The numbers are fewer than seen to the eastern part of the state, due to this being an agricultural area that simply does not support as much bird habitat.
If you look at farmland, scrub and woods, the greatest variety “of course” is found in the woods, Thomas said. He concluded that the turbines would not have a significant impact on birds.
–Dr. Peter Poletti addressed property value impact. He was educated at the University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University and has a Ph.D. from St. Louis University. He also holds an MAI designation from the Appraisal Institute and other assessor accreditations, as well as real estate appraisal and assessment qualifications.
He compiled data on properties associated with the Rail Splitter, Mendota Hills and Twin Groves projects. He established control and target groups and looked at home values per square foot, before and after wind farm construction. There was a $2 average difference, which equates to no significant difference in home prices between the controlled and target areas.
He also presented a 2009 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of how wind farms affect property values. It determined that there was no impact on property values. A copy of the report can be seen in this PDF: http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/ems/reports/lbnl-2829e.pdf.
(“Berkeley Lab Study Finds No Widespread Impact of Wind Power Projects on Surrounding Residential Property Values in the U.S.”)
–Dan Fulscher, Logan County EMA and 911 director, said, “We do experience 10 severe storms a year; it’s not just about tornadoes in Logan County.” He said just about every kind of weather comes through here but a tsunami, including microbursts and ice storms.
Logan County has over 200 weather spotters for “ground truth.”
Questions and answers
The floor was opened to questions for the experts to answer, as they would not be returning for Tuesday evening’s hearing.
–Debra Bassi questioned how fast the blades can spin and how quickly they can be shut down during a storm.
In answer, she was told that the tip speed might be 150 mph maximum but that because of early warning forecasts, the turbines would already be going slowly enough to shut down quickly, if not stopped already, before a storm’s arrival.
–Aaron Frietag, a State Farm agent, said that State Farm has sometimes refused to provide insurance because it is thought that ice that might be thrown off up to a mile.
According to Fulscher, Logan County receives more ice than any other county in Illinois.
There are no known reports of ice having been thrown. Komperda said that ice throws don’t occur. Ice falls as thin sheets dropping off the blades as it thaws.
The issue would be settled in agreements with landowners for liability and insurance.
–Steven Smith, who worked on engineering with the Rail Splitter Wind Farm suggested that people with any concerns ask Rail Splitter landowners about their experience.
–Kenny Hunter asked what noise they make and whether it could get louder with age.
Komperda said it’s hard to compare the sound with anything. He also urged those interested to make a trip to Rail Splitter and listen both upwind and downwind, but he added that it would not get any louder with age.
–Mike Mollohan questioned statistical evidence, the influence on property values, and the effect that density (number of turbines in an area) and height (taller turbines) might have.
Poletti responded that there were slightly taller turbines in some of these situations.
Statistics in the report were based on actual sales figures collected in the McLean County Courthouse, and he actually took four or five days and went to the field to see those houses as well.
He added that during permitting and construction, prices might vary. People get nervous over new types of projects, even good ones, whether it’s a park or wind turbines.
In perspective, only two properties sold after Rail Splitter went in.
He also observed that when school quality goes up, property values go up.
Approaching 2 1/2 hours into the meeting and 10 p.m., the last questions and comments that might be answered by guest experts were raised.
Ed Dowling said, “I can’t believe that someone would want to live near one of those towers,” adding that he didn’t like the feeling that the turbines would feel “right on top of us.”
Peter Niehaus commented on how the turbines would affect country living, migratory birds and nature. “There are thousands of geese that land each year in this area,” he said.
He also didn’t see the wisdom of using some of the best topsoil in this fashion, thereby impinging on crop production that feeds the nation.
The project has 11,524 acres signed.
Building permit fees would amount to over $1.1 million for the county.
There would be $1 million each year in taxes, with an estimated 65 percent going to school districts.
Approximately $1 million a year would be paid to property owners.
A PowerPoint presentation reviewed the project development. Planners used the new geographic information system, setting the outer parameters and then identifying all the land parcels and owners within the area. Then planners laid out setbacks from structures, public roads, pipelines and homes, and finally they added efficiency distances between turbines. When all those processes were complete, it significantly narrowed the potential sites.
The development team has been working with landowners on access roads and other preferences.
The turbine tower height, blade length and generators planned for Sugar Creek are larger than those used in Rail Splitter. They are third-generation improved and can produce up to 1.6 megawatts as opposed to 1.5 megawatts per location. The increase from 60 to 100 meters tall (an additional 60 feet) accesses higher wind speeds. This also allows longer blades that capture a larger amount of wind.
The construction process begins with a deep concrete base to which towers are bolted.
Underground tiles and copper lines would be laid to transport electricity from each of the 116 generators to the field substation.
As electrical energy is generated, it would travel by underground cables to a southeast corner substation. There the combined power is stepped up to 138,000 volts that would travel 4.5 miles to tie into the grid near Exit 123 of Interstate 155.
The infrastructure that is in place for the grid and good winds make the proposed location “a sweet spot,” Komperda said.
With the questioning of guest experts completed, the meeting was adjourned to continue on Tuesday evening, when all comments could be heard from those in support or opposition to the project.
Opening Tuesday evening, the project managers returned with more complete answers to some of the questions raised on Monday.
Then the meeting returned to a new question-and-answer period.
By 9:30 p.m. everyone had been permitted to present their concerns or support for the project.
The zoning appeals board also received a couple of lists of comments that Thompson said they would read.
The most impressive information from a resident came from Debra Vasey, who would be living in the project footprint. She had concerns about the impact the wind farm would have on radar and safety during severe weather.
Vasey compiled a full study on Nexrad Doppler radar and affiliated weather information and thoroughly questioned the project managers on all aspects of being able to shut down the turbines when needed.
Thompson, acting as spokesman for the appeals board, closed Tuesday’s meeting by saying that the board would take all the information and public comments into consideration. Some questions were raised that would need to be answered.
The zoning appeals board would resume next Wednesday and possibly be ready to make a recommendation to the Logan County Board, which makes the final decision on whether to grant building permits.
The county board meets as a whole the next night, June 16. If it has the recommendation of the appeals board, the county board could begin discussion, and a decision could come as soon as the board’s adjourned session on June 21.
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