DEER GROVE, Ill. – The plains hognose snake is a tan, brown and gray blotchy creature that measures nearly 30 inches and dines on frogs, toads and salamanders.
Now it’s something else: a problem for a wind turbine project that proposes nearly 90 of the towers in three counties in northwest Illinois.
The hognose, ornate box turtle and regal fritillary butterfly that slither, burrow and flit in Whiteside, Lee and Bureau counties do so with a certain privilege. It’s their habitat, and all three species are considered threatened in Illinois.
The predicament is that the first phase of the Green River Wind Farm project probably will harm that habitat, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources contends.
The promise of wind turbine energy is starting to give way to the realities of energy production. As more wind farm proposals sweep into Illinois – the nation’s leader in new wind turbines last year – questions surface about how “green” an energy source they are.
“Everything has an environmental cost; it’s a question of which environmental cost do you want to pay,” said Keith Shank, a natural resources manager for the Department of Natural Resources and author of a 21-page report assessing the Whiteside County portion of the project.
Shank said it is challenging to build a wind farm that spreads across “dozens and dozens of square miles” and doesn’t have an environmental impact.
“In a general sense, I believe that wind is beneficial compared to other forms of energy generation,” he said. “But it’s a new thing, and it’s a different thing.”
This latest concern, potential damage to rare habitat, comes at a somewhat tumultuous time for windmills in Illinois.
Boosted by one of the most aggressive renewable energy policies in the nation, the state last year built 404 turbines, the American Wind Energy Association reports. Every year, the association notes, wind turbines in Illinois generate $27 million in taxes and lease payments and enable the state to avoid releasing 4.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
But a federal tax credit for wind turbine developers expires at the end of the year, creating a rush to complete projects. At the same time, uncertain funding has hampered a state program aimed at helping to pay for renewable energy development through electric bills.
And pockets of citizen discontent are percolating around the white towers that stand 400 to 500 feet tall from base to rotor tip. About 90 miles west of Chicago in DeKalb County, where a group filed a lawsuit over zoning issues in 2010, residents contended “shadow flicker” from the blades in sunlight causes headaches and nausea.
Others said rotor noise disrupts sleep. One DeKalb County resident suggested that wind turbines contributed to the deaths of his goats.
That lawsuit was settled for undisclosed terms in 2011, but litigation is in the air in Whiteside County, about 60 miles west of DeKalb. The issues, like the DeKalb litigation, center on Green River’s purported violation of Whiteside County’s zoning ordinance.
Critics contend that plans for Green River Wind Farm’s first phase, which calls for building nine wind turbines and a substation in Whiteside County, conflict with county ordinance by failing to specify the size of the wind turbines and failing to include a decommissioning plan, among other issues.
The Department of Natural Resources report notes that construction and excavation for the turbines and substation “run a high risk of injuring or killing unobserved animals,” including hognose snakes and box turtles.
In addition, roads would be built to serve each turbine. Those strips of pavement “pose a significant threat” to turtles, which use the roads as basking areas and paths. Shank also stated that shadow flicker “may mimic the movement of both aerial and terrestrial predators,” which could stress the snakes and turtles and inhibit feeding and breeding.
The report is a little more general in offering potential threats to the regal fritillary butterfly. Shank states that “fairly extensive areas of potentially suitable habitat” exist in and near the footprint of the Green River project and urges wind turbine developers to restore habitat nearby.
The DNR report is advisory to the County Board, which will make the final decision. The next step in Whiteside County is a zoning commission hearing Wednesday. Lee County is set to start public hearings July 5.
John Martin, senior development project manager for the wind farm company, said the applications have “gone above and beyond the ordinance requirements in providing information.” The company – Mainstream Renewable Power Ltd. – has offices in Chicago.
In addition, Martin said, Mainstream has “taken the recommendations of the IDNR and are already implementing studies and protocol, specifically to protect the ornate box turtle, plains hognose snake and regal fritillary butterfly, among others.”
He noted that the wind turbines and substation would be in tilled fields where farming routinely upturns the earth for crops. The company has spent “a good amount of time, money and effort” studying many species in the area, Martin said.
“We expect to spend more … and recognize that these species deserve extra care and consideration,” he said.
The area where zoning overlaps with environmental issues is what most concerns Greg Wahl and Deb Murphy.
Wahl is chairman and CEO of Wahl Clipper Corp., a company that makes grooming products. Also an amateur ecologist involved in native prairie restoration, he owns about 143 acres directly across the road from the planned wind farm site. His property includes 22 acres considered “virgin prairie,” untouched by settlement.
Among his many concerns about the wind farm proposal, Wahl said, Mainstream Renewable Power has a limited view on the impact. Shadow flicker, noise and other wind turbine effects reach much farther than the company acknowledges, Wahl said.
He opposes the project outright, but as a compromise he is asking the county to move the wind turbines and substation at least a half-mile from environmentally sensitive areas. Mainstream opposes that change.
Wahl also maintains that county officials may be overwhelmed by the depth of issues facing them. They need to “take a deep breath and think about what’s best. There are so many issues,” he said, “that people just haven’t had enough time to sort everything out.”
Murphy, whose family has lived in a farmhouse across the road from the wind turbine site for more than a century, said the plan would place two turbines less than a half-mile from her door. A third would be less than three-quarters of a mile from her home. The substation is about 800 feet from her.
“I’m not just a little dot on the map,” Murphy said. “I’m a person with a house.”
She said she doesn’t understand why the turbines must be placed precisely where they are proposed, and she worries that her property values and quality of life will plummet.
“My first gut reaction is tears,” Murphy said. “This place is heaven to me, and, honestly, all this scares me to death. It makes me so sad, more than anything.”