East Central Illinois has become a popular location for wind farms, with several facilities up and running, and more being proposed. But the emergence of them in Ford and Iroquois Counties hasn’t been easy on everyone.
John and Diane Conner have farmed the same land near Sheldon in rural Iroquois County for 45 years. Since last spring, their property has been surrounded by wind turbines.
The Settler’s Trail Wind farm is the first development in the state for Chicago-based E. On Climate and Renewables. Diane says the company first started knocking on doors in their area about five years ago, offering contracts, and more money than farmers could make off their land.
“It sounds like it’s a really good deal when you’re looking at 8-thousand dollars of income a year for just having a tower put up at your place,” she said.
The plan took shape as the Iroquois County Board approved a zoning ordinance to back the project. It allows turbines to locate 1500 feet from homes. But the Conners were skeptical.
Diane says she was concerned about what turbines would mean to the landscape and land value. And she had heard reports of noise pollution and shadow flicker through wind farms in northern Illinois. The Conners chose not to sign on, but their neighbors did. Once the turbines were in place, Diane says their fears became reality, with sounds resembling a jet airplane affecting their sleep at night.
“It’s my understanding that other counties are considering the wind farms are using us as a basis to look at our mistakes, and are trying to rectify that before they do sign on with windmill companies,” Diane said.
The Conners’ neighbors, Mark and Cindy Nagele, signed on to Settler’s Trail. They don’t have the same concerns about wind farms – they’ve been paid for the use of their property. But Mark Nagele agrees with John and Diane, that setting up the turbines proved difficult for the whole area.
“It’s hard to stop being a farmer and look at it from a construction phase, because they’re into it to get their project, and we’re thinking they shouldn’t be out there, but that’s what they have to do to get the job done,” John said.
In order for renewable energy companies to locate in rural areas, construction crews hired by the developer often have to grade and level the road with earthmoving equipment, and add surfacing that will let companies bring in heavy cranes used to haul wind turbines. But both couples say gravel roads near their property have been reduced to ‘washboard’, with wavy patterns in the surface, causing speed bumps, and puddles when it rains.
“It’s like anything else,” Mark Nagele said. “If you don’t start with a smooth surface, then anything that you put on top of it just conforms to the roughness of what’s underneath.”
Matt Tulis is a spokesman for E. On Climate and Renewables, who says it’s working with a local road commissioner. And he admits setting up wind farms will cause disruption to landowners’ property.
“Whether it’s debris in the field, if we’ve broken some of the drainage tiles, if there’s dirt that needs to be reclaimed, we’ve been working with the landowners on an individual basis and trying to address whatever concerns they have,” Tulis said.
Ron Schroeder chairs the Iroquois County Board. He’s heard from Sheldon residents that experience shadow flicker and other problems with nearby turbines, but Schroeder says the county needs a tax benefit from somewhere in today’s economy.
“We need some income,” Schroder said. “And we can’t get income from your taxes just getting raised, and there’s no jobs, and no tax base. If you drive from Crescent City to Watseka, Burns Implement is gone and they had a lot of employees that made good wages, Lifetime Doors is gone, there’s nothing to keep our young people in the county. There’s not many good jobs.”
E. On Climate and Renewables also has a wind farm in nearby Paxton in Ford County. Many of its turbines are visible from Interstate 57. The Superintendent at Paxton-Buckley-Loda schools calls the Pioneer Trail wind farm the district’s most reliable source of revenue. Cliff McClure says he expects the district to receive $1.1 to 1.3-million in assessed taxes over two years, beginning in the summer of 2013. But he says at this point, they’re not targeted for special projects.
“Save for tomorrow, you know?,” McClure said. “And look at what some of those needs are, We’ve talked about some different repairs of buildings, and some of those things that we could do instructionally, so we’ve talked about those things, but that money isn’t earmarked as of this time.”
Like E. On’s other wind farm near Sheldon, this one required a zoning ordinance, but in Ford County, it’s also become an election issue. Ford County Board member Tom McQuinn has turbines bordering his property, and to this point, says he can’t complain about the job E. On Climate and Renewables did, or the tax income it’s bringing.
But like Schroder he admits there are concerns over a turbine’s distance from someone’s home.
“That is an area that I still think could be looked at and readdressed,” McQuinn said. “Because I do agree that if you’re a non-participating person, you really shouldn’t have one right up next to you. Especially considering that the windmill farms have all pretty well said they can arrange these in a way to not really affect non-participating people.”
Ford County board candidate Cindy Ihkre says local officials fail to take into account concerns of health, safety, and property value when looking at wind developments. Last November, those on each side of the issue spoke at a hearing in the Ford County community of Roberts, where BP wants to set up a wind farm. And Cindy says many times, these projects are approved before residents are made aware of them.
“After they learn all about it, and they say gung-ho, great, I want to live amongst them, I want to participate in this, that’s wonderful,” Ihrke said. “And if they say ‘I just learned all this information, what am I going to do with this, I’m not happy with this decision, then they need to take steps to remedy the situation.”
Ihrke and fellow county board candidate Ann Ihrke, who’s also her mother-in-law, head up the group Energize Illinois, which contends that wind power is not a reliable resource.
But wind power supporters say East Central Illinois lies in the ‘sweet spot’ of the state’s wind corridor. David Loomis is Director of the Center for Renewable Energy at Illinois State University. He says counties like Iroquois, Ford, and Champaign also possess the proper transmission capacity to use the power generated.
“And the third thing you need is a good market to sell it into,” Loomis said. “We have a big load center in Chicago, we’ve had a renewable portfolio standard in the state, that’s mandated that Ameren and ComEd buy an ever-increasing amount of their electricity from renewable resources.”
Loomis says perhaps the biggest issue faced by local officials now is what it will cost to tear down the large turbines at the end of their expected lifetime, or if a company goes out of business before that.
What kind of surety do we have, what form does that take, is than a letter of credit or escrow account, when does that money have to be deposited, and how much is it going to cost?,” Loomis said. “And that’s a difficult question to say with great certainty, because we’re looking at 20 to 30 years later.”
Opponents of wind energy can be expected to continue their fight as proposals for new projects come before local officials. But inaction in Congress could discourage developers from making proposals. Last week’s extension of a payroll tax cut by Congress failed to extend a wind energy tax credit beyond this year, something experts say will keep developers from making proposals, and costing jobs. But Loomis says it’s possible the credit could be extended during the lame duck session of Congress after November’s election.